Tóibín beautifully combines the restrained elegance of a Greek vase-painting with an all-too-human pathosby Jane Shilling / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
House of Names by Colm Tóibín (Penguin, £14.99)
At the royal palace in Mycenae a great feast has been prepared for King Agamemnon and his warriors, returning victorious from the Trojan war. But the victory has been bought at a terrible price. As the celebrations begin, two bodies are placed on the palace steps, naked and bloody. They are those of Agamemnon himself and his captive, the beautiful seer Cassandra, murdered by Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, in revenge for the king’s sacrifice of his own daughter, Iphigenia. Summoned by her father with the promise of marriage to the hero Achilles, the shrieking girl was slaughtered in a place foul with the blood and innards of butchered animals; her life exchanged for a fair wind to blow Agamemnon’s ships to Troy.
So begins Colm Tóibín’s reimagining of the story of the house of Atreus, a family riven by its dark history of murder and revenge. Tóibín’s text draws on the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, but dwells in a world of its own; a place where the gods are indifferent to the bitterness of human suffering: “They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree,” says Clytemnestra.
Narrated by Clytemnestra and her surviving daughter Electra, with third-person accounts of the experiences of Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, a toddler when Iphigenia was killed, Tóibín’s novel beautifully combines the restrained elegance of a Greek vase-painting with an agonising, and all-too-human, pathos.