House of Names by Colm Toibin
A sick proposal from the Gods: in order for the winds to favorably carry Agamemnon’s ships to battle, he must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphegenia. Blinded by the prospects of glory, Agamemnon heeds this request and has Iphegenia’s throat slit ear to ear, as if she were an ox being readied for a burnt offering. His wife Clytemnestra, daughter Electra, and son Orestes are helpless as the murder unfolds, unable to break through Agamemnon’s unwavering faith.
Colm Tóibín’s impressive House of Names develops this horror and its aftermath through the eyes and voices of Iphegenia’s mother and siblings. Its opening and closing sections are brutally narrated by Clytemnestra: her grief is is palpable and her abuse a horror to endure. After attempting to stop Agamemnon’s actions, she is imprisoned and “half-buried underground as [her] daughter died alone.”
“I never saw her body and I did not hear her cries or call out to her but others told me of her cry. And those last high sounds she made, I now believe, in all her helplessness and fear, as they became shrieks, as they pierced the ears of the crowd assembled, will be remembered forever. Nothing else.”
Once freed, she murders Agamemnon and his new lover, but in Tóibín’s rendering, Clytemnestra’s unthinkable actions are troublingly close to understandable.
The middle sections of the novel are devoted to Iphegenia’s siblings. Orestes’ story is told in third person narrative as he’s kidnapped, escapes, and journeys homeward. A ghostly section narrated by Electra remains in the palace and follows the events after Agamemnon’s murder, as her mother teams up with the former prisoner Aegisthus.
Conceptually, House of Names is a fitting follow-up to Tóibín’s 2012 novella The Testament of Mary, which gave a voice to Mary, mother of Jesus. Like The Testament of Mary, House of Names imbues an ancient story with character and empathy: Tóibín accepts his source material as it is and attempts to humanize its developments. In The Testament of Mary, Tóibín shows the difficult intersection where motherhood meets martyrdom; in House of Names, he shows how acutely grief can evolve into vengeance — and eventually, remorse.
Unfortunately, Tóibín’s loose adherence to the legend of Agamemnon does render him at the mercy of its canon. While there are a number of authorial flourishes throughout House of Names that show Tóibín stretching his creative muscles, the rough outline of the novel must follow the Greek Tragedies before him. Tóibín is an exceptional novelist and at times the soap opera feel of Clytemnestra’s vengeful tale limits him to a story that has since become cliche. He works his way out of this plot’s confines as best he can by developing new themes and fleshing out its characters with beautiful, classically-inspired language, but it is difficult to disconnect and develop a work that’s so inherently linked to another.
So, why Clytemnestra, why this story? Tóibín has already proven in The Testament of Mary that he can give a voice to a silenced woman and reveal the nuances of their mythic rendering. He’s shown that Mary is more than just a name, capable of a range of emotional complexity. In House of Names, this evolves into something different, about truth and faith, identity and the not-so-incontrovertible fact that a person is who they say they are and feels the way they say they feel. In Greek myth, there’s little room for interpretation: throughout the Iliad, Agamemnon is repeatedly referred to as wrathful and unforgiving — if we take this as fact, then it’s with a strange sort of understanding that we read of the death of Iphegenia. It’s sick, but it’s what a warlord would do. But if we begin to question these facts, then the story changes. If we take The Testament of Mary as an invitation to look again at the past and see all that was left unsaid, then House of Names is about the continued fracture of that facade. “We live in a strange time,” Electra tells Orestes towards the end of the novel.
“A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.”
In this sense, House of Names becomes a remarkably timely work about truth and justice, about finding feeling in what were once considered facts. Perhaps the gods are not who they say they are; perhaps we should demand more from a story that what we’re first told.