House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

When trying to describe the writing of Colm Tóibín it is easier to point out, not what he does, but what he does not do. He does not use contractions which gives his writing formality, gravitas, and weight; he does not use many adjectives and rarely long and compound sentences making the writing plain, stark, and bold; he does not describe places, people, or the weather unless it is absolutely necessary; and he does not use many adverbs or sentimental phrases to steer the reader into an emotional reaction. It is like watching a movie without a soundtrack (and if you would like an example of such a movie try Maren Ade’s superb comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, 2016 – no soundtrack).

Tóibín asks a lot of his readers; he allows readers to supply the detail: he simply says
‘she walked slowly along the corridor of the palace to her room,’ and leaves it up to us to provide the detail: the decorations, the floor tiles, the guards and their uniforms, drapes, and statues. We all have an idea of the a corridor in a pre-christian palace. Our thoughts may not be accurate, but interior design has nothing to with Tóibín’s story. Our imaginative efforts are all he needs.

All of these elements are in his latest work, House of Names, Tóibín’s retelling of the pagan Greek tragedy of the turbulent family of the House of Atreus, headed by Agamemnon who prepares to besiege the city-state of Troy and return his kidnapped sister-in-law, the beautiful Helen, and return her to her husband, his brother, Menelaus. There is also no sense of good and evil, there is just what must be done to get what you want. Revenge, rape, human sacrifice, incest, matricide, kidnapping, imprisonment, and murder by any means are par for their daily lives as they are for the gods they worship and from whom they seek guidance.

She [Cassandra] had come to us in glory and now, in ignominy, she was running through the palace seeking Agamemnon, having divined that something had happened to him. Aegisthus followed her at a slow pace. When I saw her, I calmly ushered her into the bathroom, where she could see my husband bent over naked, his head in the bloody water. As she howled, I handed Aegisthus the knife I had used on Agamemnon and indicated to him that I would leave him to his task.

Tóibín has used the bones of the story garnered from the Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus but has also relied heavily on his own imagination, especially in the Orestes section. The book is divided into parts each focusing on one of the three main characters, Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, Orestes, their son, and Electra, their daughter. The sections labeled Clytemnestra are told in the first person, the others in the third. However, Tóibín uses free indirect discourse (also known as ‘close writing’) where the words used are similar to those the protagonist might use giving the third person narrative a taste of the first; so, whether told in the first or third person this tale is very personal to the murderous trio.

The story opens the day after Clytemnestra has slit the throat of her husband Agamemnon just after he slipped into a warm bath,

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

but quickly takes us back to the reason for this: the death of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s eldest daughter; rather than marrying Achilles, her father’s famed warrior, which she thought was happening that day, she was sacrificed to the gods, with Agamemnon’s approval, to enable fair winds to take him and his fleet to Troy. Clytemnestra plots her revenge which never fades while Agamemnon is away fighting the decade long Trojan War.

This novel, his eleventh work of fiction, is a departure for Tóibín, which may have been his attraction to the idea. Usually his family stories are more about the emotional geography of everyday life of everyday people: the inability of a father to confess love to a lonely son; a recently widowed mother’s attempt to regain her life on her own terms; or how a writer, used to success, copes with failure; rather than the murderous shenanigans of the rich and powerful. However, in the first-person narrative of Clytemnestra, there are similarities with Tóibín 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary. Here too the tone is confessional: a woman, a character from our ancient past, confessing to the reader her inner thoughts, motivations, and decisions.

To facilitate her murderous plans, Clytemnestra has her son, Orestes, still a teenager, kidnapped and sent away along with other young men – to garner silence from their fathers – and guards who might get in her way. Orestes, with two others, the strong and decisive Leander, and the weak and sickly Mitros, escape and in this third-person narrated section there exists, eventually, a taste of domestic happiness, rural contentment, and even romance. But Tóibín only hints at such human pleasures with the same distanced control he uses to describe filial treachery, pride, and murder.

Electra, a sad and rather pathetic character does not have the beauty of her dead sister, Iphigenia, nor the cunning and charisma of her mother, or the courage of her brother, but she hovers over the story biding her time, making plans, until she is able to set up the matricide for her brother to commit.

I enjoyed this tale – it’s a quick read –  but I hanker for Tóibín to get back to what he does best and to the promise he made post Brooklyn (2009), that after three novels about women he would tackle a story about men; his previous, The Heather Blazing (1992), The Story of the Night (1996), and The Master (2004), where a long time ago.

You can obtain this work in various editions here.