Book review: Colm Toibin’s novel ‘House of Names’ offers new twist on classic Greek tragedy
‘House of Names,’ by Colm Toibin
Ancient history, specifically the Trojan War, has always fascinated me, so when I saw a book about the aftermath of Agamemnon’s return home after winning that war, I leaped at the chance to read it.
At the end of “The Iliad,” Agamemnon is famously beheaded by his wife, Clytemnestra, as revenge for sacrificing the couple’s eldest daughter for favorable wind at the beginning of the war. “House of Names” spans the length of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s conflict, almost 20 years, from the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, to the death of Clytemnestra.
“House of Names” offers an insight not only into Clytemnestra’s revenge-driven psyche but also her son, Orestes, and daughter, Electra’s, time growing into their roles. Orestes is a gentle boy stolen from his home who turns into a kind man driven to extreme ends. Electra is a devout daughter, turned political prisoner, but determined to survive by any means necessary.
Filled with political subterfuge that leads to violent crimes, and violent crimes that, in turn, inspire political subterfuge, it becomes clear to everyone within the story that goodness will accomplish nothing.
With chapters told from each of these characters’ perspectives, the reader can understand everyone’s motivations, even though it is obvious the characters in no way understand each other. When the drive for revenge overcomes the love of one another, all bets are off.
A classic cast of primary and secondary characters will be recognized by anyone familiar with classic Greek tragedies and are easily embraced by anyone new to the genre. Since they are equally likable and despicable, readers will find themselves torn back and forth from one side to another as each person makes their point.
Toibin’s writing flows beautifully without being excessive. There is no unnecessary prose to get in the way of the storyline Toibin set out to make. While this is a departure from his usual subject matter, he has clearly done his research on these characters and their existing literary history, to staggering effect.
If you have read “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey,” read “House of Names.” If you have every wondered what happens after the Trojan War, this is the book for you. Mystery readers will love this novel as much as historical fiction buffs and classic literature connoisseurs.
If you enjoy this novel, you may also enjoy “The Firebrand” by Marion Zimmer Bradley as well as the “And I Darken” series by Kriestin White.
Jenna Meier-Bilbo is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs. This book is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path bookstore.
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