Book Review: House of Names by Colm Tóibín

We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.

Drawing from Greek mythology, House of Names is a fictional re-imagining of the stories of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon and their children Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Deceived into joining their husband and father at the battlefront it quickly becomes clearer that Iphigenia is required for a more sinister purpose which she bravely meets head on.

I will die. It cannot be otherwise. It is not right for me to be in love with life. It is not right for any of us to be in love with life. What is a single life? There are always others. Others like us come and live. Each breath we breathe is followed by another breath, each step by another step, each word by the next one, each presence in the world by another presence. It hardly matters who must die. We will be replaced. I will give myself for the army’s sake, for my father’s sake, for my country’s sake. I will meet my own sacrifice with a smile. Victory in battle will be my victory then. The memory of my name will last longer than the lives of many men.

After the superstitious sacrifice of their eldest daughter, done with the hope that the gods will change the wind and smile upon them in battle, Agamemnon returns victorious- to a celebratory kingdom and vengeful wife.

I planned to attack my husband when he returned. I would be waiting for him, all smiles. The gurgling sound he would make when I cut his throat became my obsession.

In an attempt to secure the success of her plan, Clytemnestra enlists the help of a prisoner, Aegithus, who is known for his villainous acts. Oddly, she also delegates the task of ensuring the safety of her remaining children, Electra and the youngest and heir Orestes. Blinded by bloodthirsty rage, she lets the reigns slip and her children are quickly swept out from underneath her- Electra to the dungeons and Orestes into an epic journey towards exile. The story continues to alternate between theses three narratives and we begin to see clearly to effect of power and paranoia and the coming-of-age of Electra and Orestes in the shadow of their mother’s torment.

My mother and her lover bought my silence with their threats, but they cannot control the night nor how word is spread. The night belongs to me as much as it does to Aegisthus. I can move too without making a sound. I live in the shadows. I have an intimate relationship with silence and thus I am sure when it is safe for someone to whisper.

Orestes is sheltered from the deep hatred that develops in Electra as he was sent on a miserable journey to an isolated commune for young boys. Hoping for safety, Orestes quickly realizes this encampment is anything but and forms a plan for escape with two boys from the village. His tale meanders and we are able to see the gradual change from boy to man that life and circumstance requires of him.

And there is only one, one alone, who can revenge what she did, who can revenge that killing and the other killings, and that is you. You are the one. That is why the gods have spared you and sent you back. That is why you are here, so I can tell you this. Now it is your duty as the son of Agamemnon to revenge his murder.

Full to bursting with deceit, betrayal and violence, House of Names is a tragic examination of the effects of resentment and revenge on the heart and the bonds of family and loyalty and the greater insignificance of it all.

They made their way outside and stood on the steps, taking in the dawn light, fuller now, more complete, as it always would be once the day began, no matter who came and went, or who was born, or what was forgotten or remembered. In time, what had happened would haunt no one and belong to no one, once they themselves had passed on into the darkness and into the abiding shadows.

Read voraciously.


A review copy of this title was provided by Scribner via Netgalley.


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