House of Names by Colm Tóibín
Published by: Scribner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reviewed by: Alex
What to Expect: A pithy, high-tension retelling of what happened after Clytemnestra’s killed off her husband, King Agamemnon. I never knew I needed this until I read it.
From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children.
“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.
Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.
In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in four parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.
Loss turns us into animals.
In this case, it starts with the pending loss of the Trojan War. The same pending loss that caused King Agamemnon to weigh up his bloodlust and belief in his gods against the love for his firstborn. Or Clytemnestra’s loss of a daughter, magnified by the twofold betrayal of her husband, first because she and her daughter were lured from their home with the promise of a marriage to Achilles, followed by Agamemnon’s sacrifice of her daughter by his own hand. Then, there’s the loss of trust from a daughter to a mother as Electra moves in the shadows, watching and waiting to plot revenge. Finally, the understood loss of his lover’s partnership that ultimately causes Orestes to commit matricide.
It’s a far cry from the theme’s of victorious homecoming told in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, though Clytemnestra’s revenge had been present even then. Tóibín also cleverly weaves in references to these same works by setting up Achilles pending distrust of Agamemnon and with stories told by an old woman in which a god in the form of a swan (Zeus) lay with a mortal who had four children. Only one would have the grace of the gods. She was speaking of Helen, whose sister is Clytemnestra.
Where Tóibín shines is in retelling a sliver of an epic story with the hindsight of modern-day psychology. And of the combination of the helplessness associated with one’s belief of following the gods, with the freedom of going against them—or of exacting one’s revenge without so much of a whisper of communing with them to make sure such revenge would fly with Olympus. Clytemnestra’s descent as she loses her humanity, watching as she gives up her power, is fascinating.
Then, Orestes. Wow. His desire, his longing, his need. To watch this child grow into a man, to do all he feels is right, to strive over and over, only to end up with a small shadow of what should be his due.
What you may not like: This is somewhere between a retelling and fan fiction, and specifically that flavor where someone takes a sliver of an idea and develops the plot offline, only to tie it to another original sliver later on. But when written by someone with real mastery of prose, of characters, of tension, any diminutive used in relation to “fanfiction” should be pushed aside (Spoiler – I happen to love fanfiction so, me loving retellings and this rendition? Not a surprise).
There was a section told by Electra’s POV, though this was, unfortunately, the weakest. As far as strong women go—strong women meeting unbelievable obstacles, strife, grief—I wanted him to elevate her story to spectacular heights but this didn’t happen.
What you will love: My heart was in my throat for most of it, which is not an experience I often have while reading most historical fiction. Usually, the devices for describing the era serve to provide a distance from me and the story. Not this time. I was right there.
Also love: the bisexual norm and appreciation—no, expectation—that lovers take many guises. It’s one of the things that goes without saying (or it should) when reading a book from this era and frustrating when the story of Achilles and Patroclus remains “questionable” as to whether their relationship was homoerotic when…uh…why WOULDN’T it be?