House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

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17 thoughts on “House of Names by Colm Tóibín”

  1. An eloquent article he wrote for a recent Guardian promised much, and drew parallels with the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I suppose I shall have to read it to decide its worth for myself.

    I had a passing understanding of the background to the Trojan War in my schooldays, but as it’s been many years since those days and as classical authors and playwrights were forever messing around with the ‘facts’ anyway, I don’t think any minor discrepancies in the telling would upset me.

  2. Well, I intend to read this one. I have not read the original play either. I am afraid it would be a bit of a slog and I can’t advise you on a good translation, though I bet there are more than one of those. I have read Brooklyn and liked it, though I liked the movie better! But someday I hope to read The Master, his novel about Henry James, even though I haven’t liked any Henry James I have read.

  3. I have not read the original play but I know the story pretty well, from references in other literature and just general reading of History. I think I agree with you that books like these are easier to follow if you do not know too much of the details beforehand. I had the feeling when I read the Conqueror Series about Chengez Khan and the Mongol Conquest by Conn Iggulden. The series took my breath away and remains an all time favorite. However when I began reading the series I had very limited knowledge about Mongolian history and it was only after I had read this series, that I began to read more. I then found out that Iggulden had taken certain artistic liberties; but it was also true that they were minimal and they did not distract from the main narrative. If Toibin is able to do that, I think then overall it would have been a well done adaptation,, where the narrative evokes emotions, but from your review I do not think, he did. I think is the key to such fiction are the narratives; historically we broadly know what happened, but it is in the portrayal of the principal characters and giving them a voice that makes or breaks such historical fiction. I do not feel this quite happened in this one though!

    1. I tried one of Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses novels and didn’t get on very well with it, but I would be happy to try another of his books – the Conqueror series sounds interesting and I certainly don’t know much about Mongolian history either, so wouldn’t notice if any liberties had been taken! It can definitely affect your enjoyment of a novel when you have a lot of knowledge of the subject and find yourself starting to question the accuracy and the author’s decisions.

      1. Yeah….War of Roses is Meh! Even I kind of bypassed it after Book 2. But the Mongol series is seriously good stuff and much more interesting! Give it a shot!

  4. I seem to have gotten rid of the Aeschylus that I read in college, but I think it was the Fagles translation, which I recall as pretty good. The plays are definitely worth reading (in a good translation) they’re powerful stuff. I’ve poked around Amazon and there are several newer ones than Fagles that get excellent reviews: Meinecke, and Hughes, for instance.

    1. Thanks, Elaine. It seems there are a few good translations to choose from, then. I’m pleased to hear you think the plays are worth reading.

  5. I haven’t read House of Names. That said, a successful novel based on another’s work is one for which you need no prior knowledge; that is, you are able to grasp the spirit of that work and feel that you know the fundamentals of it. It doesn’t sound like Tóibín was successful in that regard.

    1. I didn’t have any trouble following the plot, but you’re right – I didn’t feel that Tóibín had captured the spirit of the original, which is why I think it would be interesting to actually read the Oresteia one day and find out.

  6. Very similar to my own reaction to the book. I thought the first section was wonderful and I liked the second, Orestes, section too – like you, I don’t know the original so wasn’t aware of and therefore annoyed by any changes Toibin made. After that, when we got to Electra’s section – well, from that point on the book has almost entirely faded from my mind. The book that introduced me to Toibin was The Testament of Mary, which is written with the same kind of almost savage power as the Clytemnestra section of this one, but in my opinion sustains it much better throughout the whole book. It’s also very different from his usual style, which I also love. I highly recommend it!

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