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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.