Agamemnon, believing he is acting out the wishes of the gods, sacrifices his eldest daughter for success on the battlefield on the eve of her wedding day. His wife, Clytemnestra, cannot forgive such a betrayal, and silently seething, plots his downfall. Her actions force her down a dark path and her choices have far-reaching consequences for her, her remaining children and their kingdom.
This is a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, full of scheming, revenge and murder. I must admit that I haven’t read the original text. While I’d heard of a couple of the key players, I didn’t know the story, so have nothing to directly compare this to.
As events unfold, all of the characters find themselves stuck in a cycle that seems impossible to break. With each crime committed or action taken, there’s another character waiting in the wings to demand payback or retribution.
Although this is set in ancient Greece, there are themes running through this book that are entirely relatable to the present day – such as Clytemnestra’s loss of faith, her grief and her feelings of abandonment by a higher power after a tragic loss. Revenge and the idea of ‘an eye for an eye’ also still resonates. Although the actions of Clytemnestra and those around her are extreme and melodramatic, the motivations behind them are understandable in the context, if not forgivable.
Despite the high emotions that the characters must feel, the writing style feels quite distant and detached. Clytemnestra is the only one that I felt any real attachment too. Her emotions shine through and I wish we’d had more from her point of view. Her actions reverberate through the palace, affecting everyone around her. This includes her daughter Electra, who brims with silent fury. Electra eventually becomes what she despises – another example of how without change, everything comes round in a circle and no progress is made.
Orestes was an interesting character. He’s continually being pushed in various directions by other characters, such as Leander and Electra, but never fully included. His sense of isolation is echoed in the rest of the novel – everyone has their own secrets and motivations and they’re not willing to share them. The result is a general feeling of mistrust and suspicion, summing up the pervading overall feel of this book.
While I didn’t dislike this book, I can’t say that it really provoked any strong emotions in me either way. It was quite an interesting read though, and I did enjoy learning more about the Greek myths.
5 thoughts on “House of Names – Colm Tóibín”
Most Greek stories are still pretty applicable to this day. It’s one of the things I love about them 🙂 I haven’t read the original text for this one, either, though, so I can’t really talk about it.
I’m sorry you couldn’t connect with it too much… I hope your next read is a bit better.
Yes I agree – I love reading re-tellings, especially of classics. I think it’s really interesting how some basic themes and human nature never change!
Great review! I agree with your thoughts here. I really liked reading Clytemnestra’s story, and I thought the beginning of the book was fabulous. But I never felt any connection to Orestes or Electra.
I agree with you, I found it a bit frustrating as I kept waiting for another chapter from Clytemnestra’s point of view!
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