Colm Tóibín: House of Names (2017)

29344653 ‚They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.‘

On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family – mother, brother, sister – on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace’s dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family’s game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.

House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.

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  1. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33148924-house-of-names
    Amalia Gavea
    Aug 24, 2017
    Amalia Gavea rated it it was amazing · review of another edition
    Shelves: favorites, historical-fiction, tragedies, myths-legends, european-literature, greece

    There are writers that choose to build their own work on stories that have existed for an eternity and create their own vision of them, because they know they have the skills to do so.

    There are books that you can see they are glorious 5- star material before you even reach page 50. Colm Toibin is one of those writers and House of Names is one of those books.

    „I have been acquainted with the smell of death.“

    Don’t tell me I need spoiler alerts…I shall be very disappointed…

    Death is always the main character in the Atreides saga. Agamemnon took the throne of Mycenae through death, he sailed to Troy after sacrificing Iphigenia and was killed by Clytemnestra upon his return to the homeland. Orestes and Electra killed their mother to avenge their father. It’s a mythical family where blood and death rule. Blood, death and murder….

    Colm Toibin makes excellent use of the tragedies and fills the gap between Iphigenia’s death and Agamemnon’s return, as well as the time between the king’s murder and Orestes‘ matricide, in a superbly crafted way. He treats the characters and the source material with utter respect (which is more than can be said for ridiculous filmmakers and films, e.g.“Troy“….) and breathes new life in this timeless story of a cursed family. The manner in which he presents the characters and sheds light on their motives of their actions is exquisite.

    Toibin narrates the story in a literary detached manner, as is fitting to the material. These are myths known to all, undying, unchanged. There’s no need for the „personal voice“ of the author, no need for melodrama. We cannot view a novel based on these characters in the same light as any other common book. Able writers know how to make a well-known story without projecting their voice loudly. It’s very interesting to note that while Clytemnestra and Electra’s chapters are told in First-Person narration, Orestes‘ chapters are written in the Third- Person technique. Perhaps to further isolate him from all the conniving of his mother and his sister. Orestes‘ rendition of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is hair-raising and one of the most powerful written pieces I’ve read. There is also a beautiful reference to the myth of Helen’s birth and the death of her brothers, Kastor and Polydeuces, the Dioskouroi as they’re forever known.

    I am praying to no gods.“

    There are no gods ruling the fate of our Atreides now. There are only insufficient oracles and prophecies, elders that are unable to make a desicion. Each character obeys to their own personal principles, to their own notion of justice and revenge. What is alive, then? The souls of the slain that linger in dark corridors and shady gardens trying to find their way to the world of men. So here, there is no excuse that the gods dictated them. Each one is responsible for their actions. And the consequences….

    The greatest success of this novel is that it preserves the spirit of the myth. The beauty of the characters in Ancient Greek Tragedy is that there is no black and white. Even the ones considered „villains“ have their own alibies to justify their deeds. How forward were the ancient dramatists looking…What masterpieces they created and handed down to the generations until the end of time….And Toibin respects and listens as our heroes and heroines speak…

    Clytemnestra believes she exacts revenge for the unimaginable terror of losing one of her children. I confess I’ve always been hesitant to blame her, but she falls victim to her rage and to Aegisthus‘ cruelty and ambition as he finds the chance to revenge Agamemnon’s crimes towards his family. Electra and Orestes are the victims, along with Iphigenia, while Electra has an idealized image of a father who’s been a monster of greed and ambition. And she’s more like her mother than she’d be willing to admit. …Orestes struggles to find his way to a world that was taken from him and he becomes a murderer in the process.

    Characters like Clytemnestra, Electra, Agamemnon and Orestes cannot be „reviewed“. It’s almost blasphemy. They are larger than life. It is more than possible that they never existed and yet, they are immortal, eternal. To say Clytemnestra „is bad“, Electra „is mad“, Orestes „is boring“ is -in my opinion- foolish and immature. And pointless. Colm Toibin writes them as three-dimensional characters, sometimes powerful, other times full of doubt, full of love and malice and ambition. But above all, they are human beings, complex and fascinating.

    The writer chose a difficult subject that can burn any less skilled author bound to fail in the attempt. He created a novel of exquisite beauty. Not boring or cold or dragging, but respectful, vivid, poetic, raw and dark. It’s not an easy read. It wouldn’t have the Atreides as its protagonists if it were. It wouldn’t have murder as its main theme. As a Greek who has grown up with these myths that run in our blood, I can only say that Toibin made me proud to discover how alive our legendary ancestors still are. I’m not interested in trivial technicalities. For me, this is a book that touched perfection…

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