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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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south.
….Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged and the beast-headed boats surged and I stared entranced.

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….I wanted to ask her then if she did not remember. I wanted to ask if the manner of her death had been erased from her memory, if she lived now as if those things had not occurred.
….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.

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….The trains of the London and West Coast Railway run over the lines of another company as far as this town, which should have been reached by the special rather before six o’clock. At a quarter after six considerable surprise and some consternation were caused amongst the officials at Liverpool by the receipt of a telegram from Manchester to say that it had not yet arrived. An inquiry directed to St. Helens, which is a third of the way between the two cities, elicited the following reply:-
….‘To James Bland, Superintendent, Central L. & W. C., Liverpool. – Special passed here at 4.52, well up to time. – Dowser, St. Helens.’
….This telegram was received at 6.40. At 6.50 a second message was received from Manchester:-
….‘No sign of special as advised by you.’
….And then ten minutes later a third, more bewildering:-
….‘Presume some mistake as to proposed running of special. Local train from St. Helens timed to follow it has just arrived and has seen nothing of it. Kindly wire advices. – Manchester.’

From The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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….By 1921, there were twice as many bureaucrats as workers in Russia. They were the social base of the regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy. Moscow, in Lenin’s words, was ‘bloated with officials’: it housed nearly a quarter of a million of them, one-third of the total workforce in the city by the end of 1920. The centre of Moscow became one vast block of offices as committees were piled on top of councils and departments on top of commissions.
….Perhaps a third of the bureaucracy was employed in the regulation of the planned economy. It was an absurd situation: while the economy came to a standstill, its bureaucracy flourished. The country was desperately short of fuel but there was an army of bureaucrats to regulate its almost non-existent distribution. There was no paper in the shops but a mountain of it in the Soviet offices (90 per cent of the paper made in Russia during the first four years of Soviet rule was consumed by the bureaucracy).

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….I broke off. He was looking at me with a cold, glassy stare, as no doubt he had looked at the late lions, leopards and gnus whose remains were to be viewed on the walls of the outer hall. Fellows at the Drones who have tried to touch Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, for a trifle to see them through till next Wednesday have described him to me as looking just like that.
….‘Oh, so that’s it!’ he said, and even Pop Bassett could not have spoken more nastily. ‘I’ve got your number now. I’ve met your sort all over the world. You won’t get any five pounds, my man. You sit where you are and don’t move. I’m going to call the police.’
….‘It will not be necessary, sir,’ said a respectful voice, and Jeeves entered through the french window.
….His advent drew from me a startled goggle and, I rather think, a cry of amazement. Last man I’d expected to see, and how he had got here defeated me. I’ve sometimes felt that he must dematerialize himself like those fellows in India – fakirs, I think they’re called – who fade into thin air in Bombay and turn up five minutes later in Calcutta or points west with all the parts reassembled.

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

.I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two until the sweetness gave way to stench. And I liked the flies that came, their little bodies perplexed and brave, buzzing after their feast, upset by the continuing hunger they felt in themselves, a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate.
.We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.
.A knife piercing the soft flesh under the ear, with intimacy and precision, and then moving across the throat as soundlessly as the sun moves across the sky, but with greater speed and zeal, and then his dark blood flowing with the same inevitable hush as dark night falls on familiar things.

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….I watched people pass by, liked the way their voices filled the air, made everything feel whole, and I felt my lips turn a smile as birds jumped over and under tree branches. For a moment I thought of capturing them, placing them in my pigeon aviary in the barn. How lucky they’d be with me to look after them. I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip. I brought my hands to mouth and began drinking, lapping with my tongue. It was soft, delicate. Everything slowed down. I saw a dead pigeon lying grey and still in the yard and my stomach murmured. I looked into the sun. I thought of Father, tried to remember the last words I said to him. I took a pear from the arbour, walked back inside.

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….Why has the murder of the Romanovs assumed such significance in the history of the revolution? It could be said that they were only a few individuals, whereas revolutions are about the millions. This is the argument of Marxist historians, who have tended to treat this episode as a minor side-show to the main event. E. H. Carr, for example, gave it no more than a single sentence in his three-volume history of the revolution. But this is to miss the deeper significance of the murder. It was a declaration of the Terror. It was a statement that from now on individuals would count for nothing in the civil war. Trotsky had once said: “We must put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.” And that is what the Cheka [secret police] did.

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.‘If I might make a suggestion, sir?’
.‘Press on, Jeeves.’
.‘Would it not be possible for you to go to Totleigh Towers, but to decline to carry out Miss Byng’s wishes?’
.I weighed this. It was, I could see, a thought.
.‘Issue a nolle prosequi, you mean? Tell her to go and boil her head?’
.‘Precisely, sir.’
.I eyed him reverently.
.‘Jeeves,’ I said, ‘as always, you have found the way. I’ll wire Miss Bassett and ask if I can come, and I’ll wire Aunt Dahlia that I can’t give her lunch as I’m leaving town, and I’ll tell Stiffy that whatever she has in mind she gets no service and co-operation from me. Yes, Jeeves, you’ve hit it! I’ll go to Totleigh, though the flesh creeps at the prospect. Pop Bassett will be there, Spode will be there, Stiffy will be there, the dog Bartholomew will be there. It makes one wonder why so much fuss has been made about those half-a-league half-a-league half-a-league-onward bimbos who rode into the Valley of Death. They weren’t going to find Pop Bassett at the other end. Ah well, let us hope for the best.’
.‘The only course to pursue, sir.’
.‘Stiff upper lip, Jeeves, what?’
.‘Indubitably, sir. That, if I may say so, is the spirit.’

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From the Archives…

.I found each wave, instead of being the big, smooth glassy mountain it seems from shore, was full of peaks and smooth plains and valleys. Very often a school of dolphins appeared among these slopes and summits, giving the impression – thanks to the curved lines of their mouths – that they kept us company, and leaped in and out of the waves, for no reasons except their own pleasure and our entertainment. Sometimes we watched a piece of driftwood, or a tonsured head that turned out to be a coconut, tumble over and over in the swell: no great thing in itself, but in the heat of midday, with a soft wind blowing, and the deck sweetly rolling, enough to induce a kind of trance.

(Click for full review.)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 117…

Episode 117…

And still I have managed to avoid the Big 200! I seem to be working on a one in, one out basis at the moment, since for nearly a month now the TBR has remained stable at 196. There is some progress though – the number of outstanding review copies has dropped 2 to 35 – woohoo! That’s a good enough excuse for reward chocolate for me!!

Here are a few that I should get to soon…

Crime

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. I never got around to reading Laline Paull’s acclaimed first book, The Bees, though I really wanted to – still do. So I was pleased to be offered a copy of her new one – this time I have no excuse…

The Blurb says: It’s the day after tomorrow and the Arctic sea ice has melted. While global business carves up the new frontier, cruise ships race each other to ever-rarer wildlife sightings. The passengers of the Vanir have come seeking a polar bear. What they find is even more astonishing: a dead body.

It is Tom Harding, lost in an accident three years ago and now revealed by the melting ice of Midgard glacier. Tom had come to Midgard to help launch the new venture of his best friend of thirty years, Sean Cawson, a man whose business relies on discretion and powerful connections – and who was the last person to see him alive. Their friendship had been forged by a shared obsession with Arctic exploration. And although Tom’s need to save the world often clashed with Sean’s desire to conquer it, Sean has always believed that underneath it all, they shared the same goals.

But as the inquest into Tom’s death begins, the choices made by both men – in love and in life – are put on the stand. And when cracks appear in the foundations of Sean’s glamorous world, he is forced to question what price he has really paid for a seat at the establishment’s table. Just how deep do the lies go?

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I always love Tóibín’s Irish-set novels, but the book that introduced me to him was the wonderful The Testament of Mary. So I’m delighted to see him go back into antiquity again for this one…

The Blurb says: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again! I loved Erin Kelly’s The Ties That Bind, so despite my legendary iron willpower I couldn’t resist her new one, especially after reading Cleo’s fabulous review

The Blurb says: In the summer of 1999, Kit and Laura travel to a festival in Cornwall to see a total eclipse of the sun. Kit is an eclipse chaser; Laura has never seen one before. Young and in love, they are certain this will be the first of many they’ll share. But in the hushed moments after the shadow passes, Laura interrupts a man and a woman. She knows that she saw something terrible. The man denies it. It is her word against his.

The victim seems grateful. Months later, she turns up on their doorstep like a lonely stray. But as her gratitude takes a twisted turn, Laura begins to wonder—did she trust the wrong person?

15 years later, Kit and Laura are living under assumed names and completely off the digital grid: no Facebook, only rudimentary cell phones, not in any directories. But as the truth catches up to them, they realize they can no longer keep the past in the past.

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Crime on Audio

Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. This falls somewhere between a short story and a novella in length – just over an hour in terms of listening. It’s been many years since I read the China Thrillers, so I’m intrigued to see Peter May resurrect the characters…

The Blurb says: Li Yan and Margaret Campbell return in a new story, years after the dramatic conclusion of Chinese Whispers.

‘I saw your missing girl at a ghost wedding last week. She was the bride.’

It has been a whirlwind few years for Li Yan and Margaret Campbell. Nowadays, both are busy juggling their huge professional workloads – Li as the newly promoted chief of Beijing’s serious crime squad and Campbell as lecturer at the University of Public Security – with the day-to-day raising of their young son, Li Jon.

When a desperate mother appeals to Campbell’s own maternal instincts, Li agrees to look into the disappearance of a 17-year-old Beijing girl, Jiang Meilin. Yet Li’s investigation soon turns from a favour into a full-scale murder enquiry. And when he receives an anonymous note, he learns Jiang Meilin’s death is tied to a dangerous underground trade and a dark marital rite from China’s past.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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