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.