This is a subtle but supple retelling of the most famous Greek tragedy. The ‘house of names’ is the palace where the drama unfolds: names are whispered, deaths are plotted and revenge exacted. This is no stagy drama. In spare but sinewy prose Colm Toibin gives us a beautifully balanced and gripping psychological portrait of a family falling apart – misunderstandings, grief and horror are presented with an almost tangible inevitability.
We feel the horror of Clytemnestra forced by her husband’s all-consuming belief in the gods to sacrifice their daughter Iphigenia so his ships will be able to sail. She obsesses about taking revenge on him, imagining ‘the gurgling sound he would make …. in his throat’ and plotting ‘alone in silence’ until she joins forces with her lover. We also see the tragedy through the eyes of her son, Orestes and daughter, Electra and witness them both planning their own revenge. The familiar saga twists and turns creating a world of constantly changing allegiances where political figures are elevated to positions of power then just as quickly knocked down, that still resonates in today’s uncertain times.
Through the steady iambic beat of the language the tension is ratchetted up until finally, with the birth of a new baby, there is release and silence. ‘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.’
House of Names is a story of whispers and rumours and of the ‘sickly sugary smell of death’ and underlines the enduring power of words and story-telling.
Published by Scribner, May 9th 2017