House of Names
Colm Toibin is a master of illuminating human lives. In House of Names, he reworks the myth of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Orestes and Electra into a novel about a twisted family haunted by rage, murder and vengeance.
The novel follows the basic plot of the Greek myth: Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, so that the winds changed and his armies could sail to Troy. Clytemnestra, Iphigenia’s mother, swore vengeance and killed her husband. In turn her son, Orestes, killed his own mother. Tobin uses the frame of this myth to fill in the characters, giving them interiority and searching for answers to the compelling question: what makes families brutally destroy themselves.
Clytemnestra’s first-person account of her daughter’s murder and her vengeance opens the book. The book then follows Orestes in the third-person with brief first-person interjections from Clytemnestra and Electra, Orestes’ sister.
Witnessing Orestes in the third-person makes him inscrutable. He moves like a pawn on the chessboard, never sure which side he is on or who is moving him. This complicates the myth: Orestes is no longer vengeful, but uncertain and weak, even when stabbing his mother.
Under Toibin’s touch, the Greek myth loses some of its mystery and resonance. However, this is a novel: it deals not with myths but with humans, and here Toibin excels.
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