House of Names by Colm Tóibín
US pub date: May 18, 2017
House of Names is Irish writer Colm Toibin’s retelling of the story of the house of Atreus – an ancient tale fraught with tragedy and vengeance, most famously depicted in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This is going to be a long and detailed (though spoiler-free) review, because Ancient Greek lit is something of a passion of mine and this was my most anticipated read of 2017.
This is a story that I’ve loved for years, and have loved enough to read it in multiple iterations by different authors. Which begs the question – why? What exactly does a retelling accomplish? How does an author effectively strike a balance between the old and the new, between honoring a story which has been loved for centuries, and giving it new depth? I think readers go into retellings hoping to see the elements that we loved about the original preserved, but also to see gaps filled in, or to see a new intimacy given to a story originally told with impartiality. This question was on my mind the whole time I was reading this novel – what has Toibin succeeded in adding to this familiar tale?
House of Names begins with the point of view of Clytemnestra, who plots to murder her husband Agamemnon in retaliation for Agamemnon sacrificing their eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra is a character who I find particularly intriguing, and a character who I think has been unfairly maligned in various works of literature through the ages. Toibin’s Clytemnestra is everything I could have hoped for: she masquerades vulnerability with a hard exterior, she is motivated by vengeance while being grounded by a love for her family. She’s complex and nuanced and Toibin succeeds in humanizing rather than vilifying her. It’s a promising start to a novel which I hoped would be told in its entirety from this perspective. It’s hard to build on the thematic richness of The Oresteia, which concerns itself with questions of conflicting systems of justice (justice through vengeance vs. justice through law), but one often unexamined thematic thread is that of gender, which permeates the original narrative as Clytemnestra’s crimes are viewed through a different lens than Orestes’ and Agamemnon’s. How better to give this story new depth from a contemporary perspective than to tell it from a female point of view?
But then the narration shifts to Orestes, and things go downhill. As we plod through an unnecessarily long chapter detailing Orestes’ kidnap from the palace of Mycenae, I couldn’t help but to think: why? Why are we devoting so much of this narrative to Orestes? Clytemnestra is a character who has historically never been given much of a narrative voice. Orestes, on the other hand – there is no dearth of material surrounding Orestes. Homer and Aeschylus and Pindar and Sophocles and Euripides have pretty much got that covered.
But interestingly, Toibin takes this character of Orestes who is traditionally known for his resolve, and renders him rather inert. In Homer’s Odyssey, Orestes is consistently held up as a shining example of decisive action to Odysseus’ son Telemachus, who is being urged to reclaim his house from the influx of his mother’s suitors. In Toibin’s House of Names, Orestes is a follower – he doesn’t make decisions, but rather, waits for the affirmation of his friend Leander and his sister Electra. Is this an intentional subversion of Orestes’ traditionally hyper-masculine narrative? If so, why does Toibin allow Orestes’ point of view to overpower his narrative at the expense of Clytemnestra and Electra’s perspectives? Wouldn’t a more effective subversion be to reduce Orestes’ narration, or eliminate it altogether?
Once Orestes’ perspective took over, I couldn’t help but to feel a certain aimlessness to this story. After the sacrifice of Iphigenia, one of the most poignant and harrowing renderings of that scene that I’ve ever read, Toibin’s narrative begins to be infiltrated by details I no longer recognize. While I have no theoretical objections to authors deviating from the well worn path of canon (some of the best retellings I’ve read have involved original characters or invented plotlines – Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis and David Malouf’s Ransom come to mind), I struggle to discern the rationale behind some of Toibin’s choices. He omits Pylades and invents a character to essentially fill the role of Pylades – why? He changes the duration of the Trojan War from nine years to five years – why? He does a complete overhaul of Aegisthus’ narrative – why? None of this becomes self-evident throughout Toibin’s meandering story, and the result is frustrating. The further you read, the more this story’s initial poignancy becomes diluted.
Since this review has erred on the side of the critical, I do want to highlight what I thought were particular successes. Toibin’s writing is beautiful and visceral. This is only the second Toibin novel I’ve read after Brooklyn, which I enjoyed well enough while being frustrated by a certain detachment in the narration, but I didn’t think that was the case here. This is an inherently brutal story, and Toibin’s prose succeeds in adding another layer of darkness and unease, creating a tense and urgent environment. The two chapters which focus on Clytemnestra are superb, and the first-person narration was an excellent choice here.
I would tentatively recommend this to readers who maybe aren’t so familiar with the original story that Toibin is attempting to build upon, because this seems to be where the majority of my criticism lies. It’s impossible for me to say how this story would stand on its own for one who is entirely unfamiliar with these characters and their fates, but maybe that reader would fare better with the unconventional journey that Toibin takes us on. It’s not that I necessarily want to see the events of Aeschylus’ Oresteia rehashed in exactly the same fashion, but I felt like Toibin never embraced his unique contemporary perspective to its full potential; the invented details felt extraneous and did nothing to augment the themes present in the original.
This wasn’t a bad novel. I’m always critical of the things I love the most.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Scribner, Simon & Schuster, Netgalley, and Colm Toibin.