In the absence of the gods, the tragic trajectory of the story is all too human. And like all stories of this nature, it is hard to identify at which point their fates were set.
House of Names, Colm Toibin, author; Juliet Stevenson, Charlie Anson, Pippa Nixon, narrators
I really enjoyed the narration of this short novel about a famous Greek myth. In order to retain power and success in battle, Agamemnon has arranged for the murder of his own first born daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods who have demanded it. The elders agree that this must be done to save their own lives and protect their families. They agree to tear asunder his family and to take the life of an innocent young girl to save their own. This they believe will turn the tide of battle in their favor. So begins a cycle of deception and violence.
Clytemnestra was deceived into preparing her daughter to be the bride of Achilles. Unwittingly, she brought her daughter to her place of slaughter. When her husband, Agamemnon, returns victorious after battle, she is ready to take action to avenge her daughter’s death. Clytemnestra teams up with a prisoner, Aegisthus, to carry out her deed. One murder leads to another in a cycle of violence and betrayal.
Meanwhile, Elektra, sister to Iphigenia, draws her own conclusions about her sister’s death, blaming her mother. Orestes knows his father ordered her murder, but is unaware of anything else that has happened. Both sister and brother have been temporarily neutralized by order of Aegisthus and are imprisoned.
As Toibin reimagines how these characters feel and react, the reader is drawn into the palace and their lives. The secrets that are kept and the deceptions that are planned lead to more and more confusion, rumor and disloyalty. Toibin breathes life into their introspection and behavior.
In this retelling of the story, the characters deal with all the pain of human suffering and the duplicity of those around them. The narrators brought them to life as their performance was not only insightful, but their portrayals felt genuine. I could actually see the shade of Clytemnestra walking in the corridor, feel the blade plunge into the neck of Agamemnon, hear the cries of Iphigenia as she was brought to the slaughter, feel the fear of Orestes as he tried to pretend to be brave and grown up when he was kidnapped and didn’t fully understand his position, and the deceitfulness of Elektra as she carried out her own plans.
I wondered how it would have turned out if Orestes had been a more active participant in the entire process of the palace intrigue. Although he is not, and is rather an observer forced to be on the sidelines, it felt to me like Orestes was the dupe, the foil, the Job like character who was the catalyst for bringing about the events that would take them all into the future. At the end of the novel, there is a germ of greater freedom planted and the yoke of slavery begins to be questioned.
Each character modeled his/her behavior on someone who may or may not have been worthy. Power was constantly changing hands. Fealty was questioned, people were murdered. Elektra’s character was hard to read as she seemed to be part heroine and part villain, as did Aegisthus and even Leander. Orestes seemed to be caught in the trap each laid. I believe the author has done a wonderful job of reimagining this myth, making the inner workings and feelings of the palace and the characters real, rather than objects of imagination.
I am not sure if it is as good a read in a print book, but as an audio, I found it captivating. I could not stop listening and felt regret when I was forced to put it down for awhile by other earthly needs.
May's a fantastic month for new releases! I'm truly excited for all of these reads. There are three books by favorite authors this month; The Prada Plan 5 by Ashley Antoinette, A Stranger At Fellsworth by Sarah E. Ladd and Rich Peoples Problems by Kevin Kwan. The Salt Houses, The Book of Summer and House of Names all have received lots of praise by early readers and critics. I'm hoping to enjoy them as much as others or more.
Here's the release dates;
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Mr. Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
The Book of Summer by Michelle Gable
House of Names by Colm Tóibín
The Stranger at Fellsworth by Sarah E. Ladd
Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Before the Rain Falls by Camille Di Maio
The Prada Plan 5 by Ashley Antoinette
Rich Peoples Problems by Kevin Kwan
Happy Reading Friends!
Colm Tóibín's new novel is an exploration of the stories of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra all of whom appears in a number of Ancient Greek myths, perhaps most famously in the Oresteia of Aeschylus.
At the heart of the novel are three murders. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek warriors setting out to attack Troy after the abduction of Helen, tricks his wife, Clytemnestra, into allowing their daughter, Iphigenia, to be sacrificed to the gods into exchange for a following wind for the ships conveying the invading army. Clytemnestra swears revenge on her husband and when he returns some years later, she murders him, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. Subsequently, Orestes, her son, is removed from the palace, supposedly for his own safety, and held captive. He escapes from captivity, returns to the palace and kills his mother.
It takes a lot of nerve for a contemporary writer to tackle a story that generation after generation have loaded with significance. Tóibín rises to the challenge impressively and there is some wonderfully evocative writing e.g.
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.
Unfortunately it is not all as good as this. There are other places where the writing loses its compelling quality and the energy drains away from the story.
Some of his narrative decisions puzzled me, such as the introduction of Leander, a friend who helps Orestes escape from captivity. In ancient versions of the story the very same role is performed by a character called Pylades. So I didn't understand why Tóibín felt it necessary to change this.
Perhaps he was highlighting the process by which stories intermingle and transform. That certainly seems to be the rationale for including The Children Of Lir, an ancient Irish story, in one of the storytelling sessions that Orestes witnesses while he is making his way homeward.
So the novel left me with unanswered questions. Nevertheless, I found it a compelling piece of storytelling and a wonderful exploration of cultural resonance.