Colm Toibin’s House of Names is a short but intense re-telling of the Greek myth of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children. I don’t think I’ve ever read the myth, so I can’t speak about how it compares to the original. The premise of the story is compelling — a young Greek woman Iphigenia is sacrificed to the gods by her father Agamemnon in order to ensure his victory in war, and the novel follows how this event impacts her mother Clytemnestra, sister Electra and brother Orestes.
Much like a Greek myth, Toibin’s novel is emotionally charged and at times melodramatic. I was immediately sucked in by the beginning of the novel, but found the book as a whole a bit uneven in execution, and it ended up not quite living up to its promise.
The first part, told from Clytemnestra’s perspective was particularly vivid and powerful. A fierce and loving mother, she is tricked by her husband into taking Iphigenia to the battlefield to be married to Achilles, only to learn her husband’s plan to kill their daughter. Fuelled by guilt and rage, she vows revenge on her husband and solicits the support of one of the palace guards to put her scheme into motion. This section was powerful mostly because of the character of Clytemnestra, who practically pulsated on the page, she felt so real.
I particularly liked how her story highlights the unfairness of gender roles, as Clytemnestra, a powerful woman in her own right, ends up needing to use seduction to gain necessary support from another man. Worse, having already been betrayed by her husband, she finds herself betrayed by her lover as well. The actual scene of revenge is satisfying, yet her single-mindedness proves her downfall, as she is so caught up in her scheme that she fails to notice the dangers around her until it’s too late. In this, she is very much like a Greek hero with their fatal flaw, and I love what Toibin has done with this character.
In contrast, Electra and Orestes’ sections fell flat. I was particularly disappointed with Electra’s section, as she set herself up as Clytemnestra’s nemesis, and in a way, her plans were more successful than her mother’s. Given what she accomplished, I wanted her to be as vivid a figure as Clytemnestra was, a worthy opponent to such a woman. Instead, her character felt bland, almost colourless. We’re told that she was scheming and making things happen, and we see the results of her actions, but she herself seemed as much a passive observer as the reader rather than the driving force behind these events.
Orestes, who was mostly an unfortunate boy caught up in the consequences of his family’s actions, had a more interesting section than Electra’s, just because it was more action-packed. Orestes was away from the castle and had several adventures. As a character however, he was about as bland as Electra. It was his friend Leander who took centre stage in Orestes’ section, and who eventually formulated a big plan to restore order in their kingdom. Unfortunately, so much of the actual action in this section happened offstage, as Orestes is as clueless as we are, and as a result, the big climax was a surprise without any increasing tension leading up to it.
House of Names is worth a read mostly for Clytemnestra’s section, as I was actively rooting for her to win even while she was offstage. Given how Greek myths usually go, I have a feeling Toibin reversed the gender roles a bit in his interpretation of the story, so that Clytemnestra and Electra, rather than Orestes and Agamemnon, are the ones driving the story. If so, I absolutely love that change, and am curious to learn more about the character of Clytemnestra and how that may have changed over time.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.