House of Names

It was supposed to be her wedding day. That’s what Agamemnon said when he sent for his daughter, Iphigenia. Her mother, Clytemnestra, was overcome with joy at the prospect of seeing her daughter married to the great Achilles. But after all the preparations and the long journey, she learned the truth. Her daughter was to be a sacrifice. She turns on her husband, and her fury is irrevocable:

“Why will you kill her?” I asked. “What prayers will you utter as she dies? What blessings will you ask for yourself when you cut your child’s throat?”

Clytemnestra’s rage, cooled with time but still present, is the first thing we see in Colm Tóibín’s novel about this ill-fated Greek family. She tells of her pain and her plan to channel it into a plot against her husband. His murder at her hands sets of a new generation of plots, creating the same seemingly inescapable cycle of violence that Aeschylus presented in the Oresteia, although Tóibín puts his own spin on the story, inventing new characters and situations.

The novel focuses on three characters, Clytemnestra, her son Orestes, and her daughter Electra. Orestes is taken from the palace when he is young and caught up in the fantasy of war and valor. Years on his own, with just two friends, bring him back with different fantasies. Tóibín presents his story in the third person, making him seem more distant and a little less alive than the women. Electra, like her mother, tells her own story, and it’s full of grief and confusion and resolve.

These three characters are bound together by blood and history, but each one exists independently, as, of course, we all do. When the narrative moves from one character to another, we get pulled into that person’s version of events, forgetting our indignation at Iphigenia’s death and becoming angry at Clytemnestra’s treachery. And even though we get into each character’s head for a time, there’s a lot about them that we still don’t understand. Electra’s motivations toward the end are especially mysterious.

The presence (or not) of the gods adds to the mystery. The inciting incident was a sacrifice to the gods. But faith in the gods seems to be dying. Yet the dead remain, sometimes literally, speaking to their descendants. Maybe history is replacing the gods. Maybe people are just looking for a reason to do violence.

The end of the book seems to have brought about a resolution, but I’m not sure it’s a happy one. The survivors—so few of them!—are bound together, creating a new family that seems to be at peace. But there’s a sense that the trust between them is fragile. In a history so full of betrayal, will they always be on the alert? And if you’re always on the alert, can you ever be at peace?

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

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2 Responses to House of Names

  1. Jeanne says:

    “If you’re always on the alert, can you ever be at peace?” What a timely question. My answer is no. I’m having a lot of trouble with insomnia since last November.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought the tit for tat revenge-taking was pretty relevant to our current moment. I’ve seen both sides claim the other side started it, and although I have my own opinion about who started it and who’s behaved worse, after a while I wonder how much it matters. Getting back to a place of basic mutual trust seems more important than assigning blame. In this book, it looks like they might be there by the end, but it’s so tenuous and uncertain.

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