Myth Nights Children…..

…..The House Of Names by Colm Toibin

Book Review. Irish Fiction.

June 2017

It was Martin Scorcese who once said, ‘It did remind me of something out of Greek mythology……. the richest king who gets everything he wants, but ultimately his family has a curse on it from the Gods’.

In ‘The House of Names’ Colm Toibin retells, or at least he partly retells, the trilogy of The Oresteia from Greek Mythology. The problem with a book like this is that if you’ve read it and you know the story as I did, it has to do more than simply retell the tale. The challenge seems to me to be how…………. where do you take a story that’s been out there for centuries and that lots of readers will know and some readers will know pretty well.

Colm Toibin’s answer to problem is to take you inside the story and the characters, inside what motivates them, what frightens them, and what makes them say, feel and act the way they do. It’s the equivalent of Scorcese taking the story and shooting a film which not only tells of the events and shows the emotions in front of the camera but also gives you a second screen where you can watch everything that went on behind the camera at the same time. I’ve got no idea how Scorcese would pull something like that off in film, and I have no idea how anyone could pull it off in a novel…….but pull it off Mr Toibin does…..and with ease……because ‘The House Of Names’ is, in my humble opinion, the stuff of genius!

The House Of Names begins with Agamemnon luring his wife Clytemnestra and their daughter Iphigenia to meet him on his return from his campaign in Troy – the lure is the promise of marriage for Iphigenia to Achilles. When Clytemnestra discovers that it is in fact for Iphigenia to be a sacrifice to the gods and that there is nothing she can do to prevent it, she begins there and then to plot a terrible revenge on Agamemnon….. a revenge which she brutally takes on his return from the campaign. But it’s a revenge with terrible consequences for Clytemnestra as it leaves her overly-reliant on her lover and fellow conspirator Aegisthus and fatally damages her relationship with her other children Orestes and his sister Electra. From that point in terms of story, it really has it all….. plot and counter-plot, political machinations, love, jealousy, kidnap, intrigue, spying and the stirrings of revolution. After the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the God Artemis, those omnipresent Greek Gods largely absent from the rest of the book…… the world that Colm Toibin describes in ‘The House Of Names’ might well be one where the Gods might well ‘stride the narrow world like a Colossus’ but the focus is very much on the part where ‘petty men walk…… (and where they)……. peep about to find ……. dishonourable graves!’. This is what creates the scope and the power in The House Of Names, for even though the story is full of actions, twists and turns, it’s at its brilliant best when Colm Toibin gets right under the skin of these characters – and as a consequence they fairly leap off the page at you as you read it.

‘Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned

Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned’

From The Mourning Bride by William Congreve

Photograph by Wallner via Pixabay

The story is told in different parts and is narrated in turn either by or about the key characters of Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra. It allows the reader to really get into the feelings and thoughts of these key characters. As you read the first section, narrated by Clytemnestra, you really get a sense of the depth of her despair at Iphigenia’s sacrifice and as Agamemnon puts off the initial confrontation between him, his wife and his daughter who plan to challenge him with the whispers they have heard about his real purpose in sending for Iphigenia, you can feel Cltemnestra absolutely seethe with rage at her husband. Thereafter as she plots her revenge on him with Aegisthus, you completely understand what motivates her blood thirst. Equally when Agamemnon finally arrives home at the palace, there is such a strong sense of tension and contrast between the soft and polite welcome she shows to her husband, the white-hot fury she actually feels inside and the cold, calm and calculating way she manoeuvres Agamemnon into the exactly the position where she wants him – before she then proceeds to cut his throat!!!!!

“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.” ………… Clytemnestra plans a warm welcome for her murderous husband!

If you come to a book like ‘The House Of Names’ after reading anthologies of Greek mythology, The Iliad and The Odyssey as I did, what immediately strikes you is these are characters you are certainly familiar with and yet somehow they feel different. And what gives them that difference is the shift from the way anthologies of Greek myths use characters like Agamemnon and Clytemnestra to tell stories to the way in which Colm Toibin uses the stories to tell you about these characters. As a result characters like Agamemnon feel very, very different – though it’s no sugar-coating! The Agamemnon of ‘The House Of Names’ is still a complete bastard….. but here he’s a multi-dimensional, very complex, complete bastard!! So instead of the picture of the brutish and emotionally illiterate character of the myths, this is an Agamemnon who is still evil and cruel, but he’s also riven with inconsistencies, internal conflicts that try to balance his love for his daughter Iphigenia against the superstitions of his men, and then somehow craving a sort of forgiveness from Clytemnestra on his return. There’s a real feel of everyday life, every loves and emotions in these characters. Orestes bewilderment at his fate at the hands of his mother, however unintentional it might have been, is almost pitiful to read. Meanwhile Clytemnestra’s inner battle between relief at having wreaked revenge on Agamemnon and shame at having anyone know or even worse speak of her actions is dome with such a brilliant blend of power and subtlety that it is utterly believable.

‘I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content. I spend my morning looking at the sky and the changing light. The birdsong begins to rise as the world fills with its own pleasures and then, as day wanes, the sound too wanes and fades. I watch as the shadows lengthen.’

Extract from beginning of ‘The House Of Names’ by Colm Toibin

There’s a beautiful economy throughout the prose I’ve read in Colm Toibin’s other novels and ‘The House Of Names’, in spite of its violence and intrigue in places, is no different. He’s one of those writers who just seems to have the knack of making every word count and then even making the spaces between sentences and paragraphs add to the atmosphere and feel of the novel. As I said earlier, it’s a book that certainly adds more to the stories themselves if you know them in the way in which he creates mood, emotional turmoil, stress, and contradictions in his characters. But it’s also a book that takes things out – there are no neat endings here. While the myths go on to conclude the story of Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes, this is a book that very cleverly leaves much to the reader to think about, and to question. You can’t help but ponder how the relationship between Electra and her brother might progress or work out how the delicate balance in the relationship between Orestes and his childhood-friend-now-revolutionary-leader Leander will change or survive through uprising. I’ve got no idea if he’ll write ‘The House Of Names – Part 2’ but this is so well written you really get into these characters, get inside these characters and want to know what happens to them and where the myths take them next. Actually, I very much doubt you’d ever see an artist like Colm Toibin write something as lacking in subtlety and style as ‘The House Of Names Season 2’……. but if he did I’d buy it and read it in a heartbeat!

Overall I loved ‘The House Of Names’. I’m a fan of both Colm Toibin and of the Greek myths anyway, so I guess I came at this pretty much predisposed to like it. But I’d not expected to like it anywhere near as much as I actually did. It’s a wonderful book – on the one hand full of action and with no shortage of the old claret in a number of places ( the Greeks wrote the book on a lot of things in the modern world but they were no slouches when it came to ruthlessly disposing of their enemies, and even more ruthlessly, their friends!) – on the other hand this is a book where the characters come off the page at you because of how flawed, contradictory, driven, twisted and human they are. As you reach the end you know that you’ve been reading a retelling of a Greek myth, but it feels so utterly real there’s an irrational bit of you thinking you must have missed this bit when they taught the Ancient Greeks in school.

One other thing Martin Scorcese said about film making was that ‘Cinema was matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out!’. And if that was applied to this book then Colm Toibin has mastered the art of writing down what’s in the frame and what’s out…. and what’s in the frames of ‘The House Of Names’ is really very, very, special indeed.

Book Rating - It's A Ten!

'The House Of Names' by Colm Toibin was published by Viking Books in May 2017.

 

I bought my copy with my own hard-earned dosh! It’s also available on audiobook, with narration by Juliet Stephenson, and I have it on the very good authority of my partner(!!) that it is every bit as brilliant as the book is!

 

The book has already been really positively reviewed in the press but if you’re like me you’ll probably prefer to read what other bloggers think – and not everyone has found it quite the stunning read that I thought it was. So if you’re looking for a bit of balance in reviews before you buy then the reviews at The Idle Woman and at What Cathy Read Next were a bit more underwhelmed by it than me!

 

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about the genius that is Colm Toibin, you can find his own website here, which includes some very mean and moody pictures of the great man himself looking a bit like an extra in an arthouse film!!!

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