The House of Names

Written by Colm Tóibín
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

In his eleventh novel, Tóibín retells the myth of the House of Atreus and Queen Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband, Agamemnon, in return for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to the gods, only to be killed by her son Orestes and daughter Electra. Yes, the well-worn plot is beautifully reconstructed here, but The House of Names is captivating for another reason—the poetic intensity of its language, which eliminates the temporal distance between contemporary readers and the ancient characters, bringing them up close to the modern consciousness.

Although we might be familiar with Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra—the narrative is told from their varying perspectives—Tóibín’s fiction, fearless of ecstatic diction as well as fierce conceit, presents these personae as if they were new and unfamiliar; as a result, the story’s momentum is such that we read on as if this were a murder mystery—which indeed, it is. The sections centering on Clytemnestra and Electra move quickly, while Orestes’ time in the wilderness—his mother’s lover has him abducted in order to use him as a pawn against her—is more reminiscent of a novel of growth, rather than of Greek tragedy, slowing down the pace of the narrative; still, his account compellingly describes his development from boy into man and his growing attachment to Leander.

Eventually, the young men return home, where Orestes murders his mother at the instigation of his sister, while Leander, inexplicably, seeks out the companionship of Electra, leaving Orestes to the ghost of his mother. The novel concludes with the scene of a haunting whose combined horror and sadness will remain etched in the reader’s memory. A brilliant tour de force.