Review: House of Names

I joined NetGalley when I heard Colm Tóibín’s House of Names was available. My second major was in Classical Languages (Latin & Greek) and I’ve got a weak spot for mythology. Unlike other retellings which co-opt old themes for a modern take, Tóibín’s House of Names keeps the original names and plot basics. Before Agamemnon sails for Troy, he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to turn the wind in his favor. His devastated wife, Clytemnestra, plots his demise and kills him upon his return. This backdrop, which Tóibín swiftly sets up and delivers, stays true to the original but he alters the framing. The women—Clytemnestra and her daughters, Iphigenia and Electra—are in the foreground; Agamemnon and his son, Orestes, move to the back.

House of Names is written from three perspectives: those of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. There is some overlap between their perspectives, but each moves the story forward instead of rehashing the past. Clytemnestra’s voice opens the book. Through white-hot rage and grief, she describes her husband’s deception. He told her a marriage had been arranged between Iphigenia and Achilles. Clytemnestra doesn’t learn that her daughter is a sacrifice, not a bride, until it’s too late. I remember reading about Iphigenia as a sort of footnote to the Trojan War’s beginning—her death was glossed over on the way to the main story. In Tóibín’s version, it’s less a kick-off event than the foundation for everything that comes after.

House of Names carries an emotional punch that doesn’t exist in the original plays. While some passages in the source material may be moving or evocative, they don’t touch the interior lives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. Truth be told, I’ve never enjoyed reading plays; they seem so lifeless on the page. And what Tóibín does with Clytemnestra’s internal agony and the physical nature of her grief could never be condensed into a series of monologues.

After Agamemnon’s death, Clytemnestra’s first-person narration switches to a close third-person voice following Orestes. Initially, Orestes’ story meanders. After Clytemnestra’s bombastic opening, he appears weak and malleable. If given a choice between characters to narrate the rest of the story, no one would choose Orestes and the downgrade from first to third person keeps him at a distance. Though his situation is precarious, it doesn’t feel urgent. But his voice grew on me. As much as Orestes wants to join in and connect with those around him, he can’t. He was young when Iphigenia was killed and he doesn’t understand her death in the same way as his mother and sister; the years he spends away from home separate him from palace intrigue; and, when he does return, his status as prince divides him from the only person he trusts. He’s alone and not even the reader can get close. Told any other way, his actions at the novel’s close might feel uncharacteristic and gratuitous.

What ultimately elevates this book in my estimation is the way the acts of revenge that open and close the book strike such different chords. A lesser author would have put these acts in strict parallel or used cheap, emotionally manipulative tricks to set them apart. The beginning is quid-pro-quo, but the end is nuanced and unsettling. (That’s as much as I can say without spoilers.) The only place House of Names loses a point with me is with a relationship towards the end of the book—the characters are pushed together and it feels like a bid to tidy up an otherwise messy ending.

There are some pretty big deviations from the source plays (which offer their own discrepancies), but I look at this book the way I look at any adaptation or retelling: as its own work. I don’t want a carbon copy of something I’ve already read—I want to see something familiar through a new lens or in a new style. Taken on its own merits, House of Names is impossible to put down. Tóibín‘s prose is lyrical and often heart-wrenching. This is the best book I’ve read all year.

Overall: 4.9 out of 5.0 I’m not a purist, so changes from the classics don’t bother me. Tóibín’s language is rich and beautiful; he gives Clytemnestra a voice she doesn’t have anywhere else.

Translation: Read it. Once my ARC expires, I’m going to pick up a paper copy.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads