House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Dysfunctional family…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter to the gods to gain their support for his war, his wife Clytemnestra plots a bloody and horrific revenge. In her grief and rage, she doesn’t consider the profound effects her actions will have on her surviving children – Electra, silently watching as her mother finds herself at the mercy of her lover and fellow conspirator, Aegisthus; and young Orestes, exiled from his home and facing many dangers as he fights for survival.

This retelling of the Greek tragedy is given in three voices. Clytemnestra comes first and it’s through her eyes, the eyes of a mother, that we see Agamemnon’s trickery and the horror of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Tóibín shows us the full brutality of both Agamemnon’s act and Clytemnestra’s revenge in all their blood-soaked horror. Clytemnestra tells us what she thought, said, did, but it’s in the gaps between that the reader learns how she felt – helpless in the face of a savagery she shares. Agamemnon’s murder is frighteningly well done, but then Clytemnestra finds herself not the mistress but the property of Aegisthus, a man revealed as a cold and cruel tyrant.

None of us who had travelled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.

The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods – oh yes, the gods! – seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.

On the night of the murder, Orestes is kidnapped and held with the sons of other important men, all hostages to ensure their families’ compliance with the new regime. After some time, Orestes falls under the influence of Leander, who persuades him to escape along with a third boy, Mitros. Orestes’ section tells of the boys’ lives as they find ways to survive until they reach manhood. Again, there are some scenes of brutality but there is also love in this section as the boys, separated from their families, create a kind of new family of their own.

I found these first two sections excellent – Clytemnestra’s full of bitterness and rage, Orestes’ softer and quieter despite the episodes of violence. Unfortunately, after that point the book fell away for me rather. The third section is seen from Electra’s point of view. Ignored by her mother and grieving her father, Electra has inherited the family desire for revenge, but somehow I didn’t find this as convincing as Clytemnestra’s vengefulness. And when Orestes returns as a man, I fear I found him rather pale and insipid. Tóibín’s writing is always rather understated when it comes to emotions, and that usually works wonderfully for me – his descriptions of the actions and thoughts of his characters is enough to allow me to feel I understand the emotions that are driving them without Tóibín having to spell them out. And that’s how I felt about Clytemnestra and the younger Orestes. But with Electra and the older Orestes, the understatement is less successful, leaving me struggling to empathise with either.

Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.

They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

Tóibín’s writing is excellent as always, especially powerful when showing the brutality in the earlier passages. But I found the latter half lacked that power and that, added to my lack of sympathy for the younger characters, meant I was left rather unmoved by their eventual fates. Of course, it’s an essential read for any fan of Tóibín, and it’s quite probable that my slight disappointment is largely caused by my overly high expectations. But it’s not one I would recommend as an introduction to his work – for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of many of his earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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64 thoughts on “House of Names by Colm Tóibín

  1. I am fascinated by the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and usually enjoy creative retellings, but this one does not entirely appeal to me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I just can’t see Toibin’s style marrying with the grandiose Greek tragedy…

    • I didn’t really know the story and wondered if my opinion might have been different if I had. I wondered if perhaps the problem with the Electra section came from the original rather than Toibin. So I think you should read it so you can tell me! 😉 In general I agree about Toibin’s writing but my introduction to him was The Testament of Mary which ripped me apart, so I had kind of hoped for the same with this one…

  2. I do not know the actual story on which the book is based. And your review has definitely made me curious. I am glad you enjoyed some sections much more than others. I have not read Toibin yet and I thought this would be a bad start siince it is a retelling. But maybe some day I will pick it up

    • I don’t know the original story either so couldn’t be sure if the bits I found less good came from that or from Toibin’s retelling. I love Toibin’s writing though, so do hope you’ll pick up one of his books at some time – Brooklyn is a good one to start with, I think. 🙂

  3. Interesting concept, FictionFan, to retell this story. It’s certainly a classic, and I can see how it’d be appealing for a plot. Still, I can see why it didn’t quite do it for you. I think it’d be hard to pull off such a story with a modern retelling. Hm…… Still, very glad you found things to really like about it.

    • I don’t know the original story so wasn’t able to compare them, and I wondered if my problem with the later sections might have been the same in the original. I’m still glad I read it though – those first two sections were excellent. I always enjoy when Toibin moves out of his usual style a little… 🙂

    • Sadly not, though I think my expectations might have had something to do with it. It started off brilliantly – if he’d been able to reverse it so that the first sections came at the end instead of the beginning, I’d probably have been saying “Wow!” But still worth reading for Toibin fans!

  4. Seems like reactions to this book are a bit mixed. I am still interested in reading it, even though it didn’t quite deliver for you, but since I’ve yet to read anything by Tobin, I will take your suggestion and start with one of his other books.

    • Yes, even my own reaction was mixed – if I’d just been reviewing the first half I’d have been gushing, but maybe it was partly because those sections were so good that the second half felt a little disappointing. I hope you do read it someday though, but I’d recommend starting either with Brooklyn, or with The Testament of Mary which again is different from his usual style but completely blew me away… 😀

  5. Well, this sounds like one I can comfortably pass on, but still, I like your review! You’ve given us bits that show his writing style, and you’ve weighed the pros and cons of the book — well done! I imagine giving it four stars is fair. Now, off with you to have a super weekend!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I think my view might have been coloured by my very high expectations since I love Toibin’s writing, but this one just didn’t work quite as well for me as his books usually do. Have a great weekend! 😀

  6. This is, of course, on the TBR, and I confess I skipped your review (as I must, till I have read it) and went straight to the star rating and last paragraph. I do, like MarinaSofia, get allured by those ancient Greeks, and, Toibin being Toibin I would assume myself unlikely to DISlike. So I’m rather thinking I have, from your assessment a 4 star at WORST. Which is enough to be heading me to lift it soon to the top of the TBR

    • I won’t say anything spoilerish, but I think you’ll certainly enjoy this to at least 4-star level. I don’t know the original story, so I did wonder if my slight disappointment may have been with that rather than Toibin’s retelling, so I’ll be interested to hear if you think he’s been faithful to the spirit of the original…

  7. I am really enjoying reading the reviews for House of Names! Usually, I feel like a killjoy for disliking books that everyone loves (like The Night Circus or Gilead), but now I’m the odd one out for posting such a crazy-high rating. 😀 This comes with far less guilt though I do worry I’m leading people to a book that, odds are, they won’t love as much as I did. Hrm.

    Your review is definitely spot on. The Electra and Orestes dynamic is a strange one. I’m glad Electra’s section was the shortest; her story was the least coherent even though it featured such sad/lovely/haunting images of her murdered family.

    The coldness in the ending was part of what impressed me most about the book, but I can see where some readers would find it off-putting. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I liked it so much… I think I was just glad that the final acts of revenge weren’t easily justified/endorsed by the characters. Some revenge stories get so out of control with “righteous anger” that both sides of the conflict become caricatures. Somehow, the hollowness at the end of House of Names resonated for me. Toibin didn’t pick the easy path out of the story, which I didn’t expect and really admire. This is the first book of his that I finished.

    • Ha! It always amuses me how differently we all feel about the same books! I suspect my high expectations had something to do with my reaction to this one. Plus I’ve never been a huge fan of the Greeks and didn’t know the original story, so I was reading this in something of a vacuum with nothing to compare it to. For all I know, my criticisms stem from the original story rather than Toibin’s retelling, if you see what I mean. Intriguingly, I waited a couple of weeks before writing my review and, while the first two sections are still fresh and strong in my mind, the latter half has faded almost entirely away. On the whole, I prefer books that build to some kind of crescendo rather than starting there and then gently fading, which was kinda what I thought this one did. But on the other hand, I’ve loved every other book of Toibin’s I’ve read… 😉

  8. Great review! I only gave it 3 stars, but I had a lot of the same criticisms. It started out so so so strong, the sacrifice of Iphigenia scene was phenomenal and I loved the way he depicted Clytemnestra’s rage, but then I thought the story stalled when it switched to Orestes and Electra. I’m a pretty big fan of the original story as well, so I was also confused by certain changes that he made to the narrative – I just didn’t understand the rationale. I really wished he had stuck with Clytemnestra’s perspective to tell the whole story, I think it would have been a lot stronger.

    • Thank you! 😀 I toyed with three stars and I suspect my extra half star came from my general fan-worship of Toibin – I always find it hard to downgrade an author I love. I don’t know the original story and wondered how faithful he had been to it – I wondered if my problems might have been with the story rather than Toibin’s retelling, if you see what I mean. So it’s interesting that you felt he’d drifted away from the original somewhat. I agree – the Clytemnestra section was by far the strongest and I wish he’d stuck with her too – he writes women, and especially mothers, so well for some reason!

  9. I finished this book about a week ago but haven’t posted my review yet as I’m finding it quite a difficult one to write for some reason. I do like Toibin’s writing and I enjoyed the first half of the book, but I had some of the same problems as you with the later sections.

    • It took me a couple of weeks to write it too – I had to let it settle in my mind first. But when it did, I discovered that the first half had stayed fresh and strong in my mind but the second half was already fading away. I feel if the halfs had been reversed in some way, I’d have been saying “Wow!”, but unfortunately my subdued reaction to the latter parts coloured my opinion of the whole book in the end. I’ll look forward to reading your review… 🙂

    • I don’t know the original and wondered if the problems I was feeling stemmed from that rather than from Toibin’s retelling, if you see what I mean, so it’s interesting that you feel Electra is more unknowable than the rest. I may have to read the original sometime to see if it changes my opinion of the book… 🙂

  10. I am not familiar with the original tale, although it certainly seems like I should be. I believe you featured this book not too long ago and I was curious. Now it seems to have found its way into my Amazon wish list.. oops 😉

    • Ha! I know! Reading a favourite author is actually more stressful than reading a new one! But despite my mild disappointment, the first sections of this are gloriously revengeful and plenty of well described awfulness – great fun! 😉

  11. I have to be honest I’m just not quite sure about this one. I can’t marry the excessive nature of the original myth with Toibin’s understated and more dignified style, but I’m glad you enjoyed it 😊

    • I know exactly what you mean, but my first introduction to Toibin was with The Testament of Mary, which again is a million miles away from his usual style and I loved it, so I hoped this one would do the same for me. And the first couple of sections did – he can still do horror even with his understated style… 🙂

    • Oh, that sounds great! I’ve never heard him in person, but I’ve seen him interviewed on TV and he comes across as a really interesting speaker – enjoy! And thanks for popping in and commenting. 😀

  12. I don’t usually care for retellings but this one sounded fascinating and since I’ve wanted to read this author for some time, I thought I’d start with it. But it sounds like I should put it aside and start with maybe “Brooklyn”. Thanks for the heads up. Wonderful review!

    • Thank you! I don’t much enjoy retellings as a general rule either, but I love Toibin and didn’t know the original story so went for it anyway. I wouldn’t want to put you off it if it appeals to you, but I do think Brooklyn is a better book and also more typical of his usual style. But whichever you choose to read, I hope you enjoy him!

  13. Interesting review – I wasn’t really sure why there needed to be another retelling of Greek myth, and it sounds not entirely successful. It’s Toibin so of course I’ll read it, but it’s not top of the (substantial) pile!

    • I’m never convinced about the point of retellings either though in this case I didn’t know the original, so had no preconceptions. But interestingly, people who do know it seem to be having similar reactions to the book anyway. Definitely worth reading though, even if it’s not my favourite Toibin…

  14. I know the whole House of Atreus cycle well – the best modern production of the plays I ever saw had a very young Helen Mirren as Cassandra – absolutely electrifying. As a Toibin groupie, I’ll read this one, with the same trepidation with which I always read reworkings of myths I know well.

    • I don’t really know the Greek myths much at all, but I’d have loved to see Helen Mirren in the role. One of my abiding memories is of Diana Rigg as Medea. This one is well worth reading for Toibin fans even if it doesn’t rank as one of my favourites – enjoy!

  15. Excellent review, FF, of the newest from a writer we both admire. I rather liked the second half, at least in spots, particularly the afterlife episode. But I agree the first half is stronger, which hadn’t struck me until I read your review just now. (I finished it last night on a cross-country flight.) Mostly, I found it so interesting to read an ancient tale written in his spare but modern prose style.

    The first Toibin I picked up, in a bookstore near St. Stephen’s Green, was The Master. But having little affinity for Henry James back then, I wandered into the stacks in search of Toibin’s back catalogue. I settled on his second book, The Heather Blazing, about a man who is a judge facing retirement; he’s hearing his last case of the term, before heading to the shore where he grew up for a vacation with his ailing wife in the house he grew up in so long ago. I think it’s a great introduction to Toibin’s writing, even if it’s one of the relative few that features a male protagonist and the writer is so often said to be so good with women characters (which is absolutely true). So, just a thought to throw into the pot that’s brewing here on the subject of where to start. Cheers.

    • Thanks, Matt! First off, apologies for the delay in replying – WordPress had deposited your comment in spam, as it rather annoyingly does from time to time. I wished that in some way Toibin could have reversed the halves – or the impact of them anyway. Had I been reading the later sections first and then built up to the power of the earlier sections, it would have worked better for me. I felt the climax came at the beginning, in Clytemnestra’s story, and then the power faded rather in the other sections. But Clytemnestra’s own story will stay vivid in my mind.

      I read The Heather Blazing last year and loved it. I particularly enjoyed that it had more overt political content than much of Toibin’s work, even though my lack of knowledge of the intricacies of Irish politics meant I felt I probably missed some nuances. Another brilliant character study, though, and I did enjoy seeing him “do” a man – my preference will always be for his amazing women though, I think, especially his mothers. So I agree – that one would be a great entry to his work.

      I still haven’t read The Master, largely because I still haven’t read any Henry James and I feel I should read at least one of his books first. But the GAN Quest has temporarily been bumped down the priority list in favour of the Russian Revolution Challenge – and, given current affairs, I’m aware of the irony of that… 😉

  16. Great review! Yeah, that ending didn’t do it for me, either. I wasn’t quite sure what the point of the book was and didn’t connect to Electra at all. But that beginning section of Clytemnestra’s was fabulous! I do think I’ll pick up another Toibin book someday, it’ll just be awhile before I do.

    • Thank you! It was a pity it kind of faded because the early sections are great – if only he could have reversed it somehow. A book that starts slow and ends brilliantly works so much better than the other way around. He is a great writer though, so I hope you go on to enjoy more of his stuff… 😀

  17. Just back from listening to Toibin reading from the book and answering questions. His reading voice is wonderful and showed off the lyric quality of his writing. He said that he had tried to bring out parallels between this story and elements of Irish legends and mythology such as the story of ‘The Children of Lyr’ who were turned into swans (Helen of Troy was supposed to have been sired by a swan).
    He said he was more interested in the characters than the events in which they were involved: what motivated them? He deliberately avoided the idea of interventions from the gods. On the violence he said he wrote Clytemnestra’s murder in one take and could not have gone back and re-written it. He wrote it outside and on re-entering the house a friend, seeing his state asked “What ever is the matter?” To which he replied “I’ve just killed Clytemnestra.”
    I hope this interests you and your followers!
    (I also listened to Emma Donoghue today and that was e

    • Thanks for that – very interesting! I’m not sure that I spotted any parallels to the swan legends, but then I’m not very well up on mythology and folk tales so would easily miss that. But I was pleased that he concentrated more on the characters rather than on any kind of supernatural or divine intervention, and I can quite see how writing the Clytemnestra sections must have been as harrowing for him as for us reading them. I haven’t read any of Emma Donoghue’s books but am tempted by her most recent one. I look forward to reading your post on it if you do decide to write one! 😀

  18. Ah, well, not so sure it’s going to stay at the top of my list. Frank’s comment about Toibin’s reading is quite interesting. I may have to take a gander at that part to see if it hooks me.

    • That first section on Clytemnestra is brilliant – Toibin at his best. Unfortunately the rest didn’t quite reach the same heights, but it’s still well worth reading…

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