HOUSE OF NAMES
By Colm Tóibín
288 pages, $26
Colm Tóibín – the grand Irish storyteller who brought us “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster” – turns his hand to Greek mythology in his latest novel, “House of Names.”
If this seems a departure, it is one chiefly in venue and in time (a long tumble backward, from New York in the 1950s and Eire in the 1960s, to Greece circa 1200 B.C.). Otherwise, Tóibín suggests, little has changed in the hearts and minds of mankind, with the lighter “Brooklyn” and “Nora Webster” each replete in private human foibles, the darker “House of Names” full of all the violence and treachery man is capable of, even toward his own blood.
Betrayal and revenge, in fact, are the prime motivators as, in the opening scenes of “House of Names,” a seething Clytemnestra curses her husband, the warrior Agamemnon, over his plan to sacrifice their ravishing 16-year-old daughter, Iphigeneia, to the gods: “The bargain was simple, or so he believed, or so his troops believed. Kill the innocent girl in return for a change in the wind. Take her out of the world, use a knife on her flesh to ensure that she would never again walk into a room or wake in the morning. Deprive the world of her grace. And as a reward, the gods would make the winds blow in her father’s favor on the day he needed wind for his sails. They would hush the winds on the other days when his enemies needed it…”
Thus, simply and inexorably, Tóibín spins the deadly tale we remember so well from our schooldays – eschewing, or perhaps assuming we know that Agamemnon is on his way to the Trojan War, and that the palace so much in play here was once the house of Agamemnon’s father, Atreus. Of course, Tóibín’s is but one version of the ancient story – and he, like so many before him, adds and subtracts characters, here notably expanding Orestes’ childhood role while creating a new one in Orestes’ young counterpart, Leander.
Clytemnestra anchors the novel’s first section, speaking in the first person and telling us, having exacted her revenge: “Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction …”
It is Tóibín’s unembellished prose that grips us, pulling us anew into an old story, one whose ending we know yet cannot put down. We are also struck by the emotional distance he gives his characters, one from the other, except in rare instances – a family dynamic bred of damage.
Clytemnestra sees this clearly: “I would trust no one, I thought. I would trust no one. That was the most useful thing to hold in my mind.”
Betrayal begets betrayal here, changing heretofore “good” people into raw, power-seeking avengers – Clytemnestra pulling the cunning opportunist Aegisthus not only into her bed but also into her plot to kill Agamemnon, murderer of their daughter Iphigeneia, then ordering the kidnapping of male offspring of her husband’s men and the brief imprisonment of her second daughter, Electra…
It will be Aegisthus, not she, who dispatches the young Orestes (son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon) to an unknown place, purportedly to keep him safe. And the duplicity goes on and on – Orestes taking the novel’s next section, in the third person, a boy who will become the book’s moral center, then turn into an avenger himself.
Orestes comes of age on the long journey back to his home, an adventure-laden trek shared with two of the kidnapped boys, the capable Leander and the sickly Mitros, with a years’ long stop at a remote farmhouse kept by a single old woman – who teaches the boys tenderness as well as survival. Hers, she tells them, was once a house of names:
“This house was filled with names,” she tells them. “…The houses were all filled with names. All the names…”
Her meaning will come to Orestes and Leander over time, a pair in intimacy as well as travel as they make their way home, Leander to find most of his family slaughtered, Orestes to realize that his father is dead, and at his mother’s hand.
Tóibín treats homosexuality naturally here, weaving it into the life of the palace as seamlessly as he does into the dealings of Orestes and Leander. He also builds suspense surrounding Orestes’ return to the palace by first giving us Electra’s point of view – hers, as her mother’s, in the first person, and filled with the fear wrought as much of paranoia as of the truth.
Aegisthus, she tells us, “is like an animal that has come indoors for comfort and safety. He has learned to smile instead of snarl, but he is still all instinct, all nails and teeth. He can sniff out danger. He will attack first. He will arch his back and pounce at the slightest hint of a threat.”
Electra (like Aegisthus and, later, Orestes) wanders the palace at night – when the pretense of the day is lifted and the house shows its underside. She sees that its rooms are “filled with fecundity as the corridors were filled with rough desire.” While it is “convenient,” she says, “for my mother to pretend that none of this was happening, that she was somehow too foolish or distracted to notice, it was clear that she, like me, allowed nothing to escape her. She was not foolish. She was not distracted. Beneath all her simpering and insinuation, there was fury, there was steel.”
Orestes’ return to the palace – at the time a house still filled with names – will be, in the end, anticlimactic. Tóibín falters a bit here, dragging the storyline beyond its usefulness. His rendering of Orestes, however, remains touching as the now-young-man yearns for the emotionally safe palace he was taken from years before – one in which he idolized his father and his mother and his sisters were loving presences.
Tóibín has retold classics before, perhaps most notably with his controversial “The Testament of Mary,” his own depiction of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an elderly woman questioning the validity of all that went before.
“House of Names” doesn’t rise to quite the same level – but it is riveting and relevant and a fine addition to the growing canon of works by Colm Tóibín: He may not win them all – but every one is winning.
Karen Brady is a forner News columnist and a frequent News book reviewer.