Based on the Greek myth of Agamemnon, House of Names by Colm Tóibín retells the story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods; Clytemnestra’s revenge; and Orestes’ eventual murder of his mother to avenge his father’s death. Tóibín deviates from the original myth by minimizing the role of the gods and placing the action squarely on the shoulders of his characters. The point of view alternates between Clytemnestra, Orestes, Electra, and the ghost of Clytemnestra. The sacrifice of Iphigenia unleashes a cascade of catastrophes in which there is no shortage of political intrigue, blood-spilling, betrayal, and murder.
The opening section, told from Clytemnestra’s first person point of view, is the most riveting part of the novel. We share in her excitement as she prepares her daughter for the impending nuptials. We experience her anxiety and rage when she discovers Agamemnon’s deception. We hear her screams until she is forcibly silenced, gagged, and thrown into a pit while her daughter is dragged to the sacrificial altar. And as the novel progresses, we witness her descent into a cruel, violent monster.
Electra and Orestes are not portrayed as convincingly as is their mother. They seem to lack motivation and, in the case of Orestes, are more acted upon than acting. Orestes is portrayed as weak, hesitant, and submissive. He is a follower rather than a leader, taking his direction from Leander when they escape from their kidnappers and from Electra when he murders his mother. Electra is stronger and more capable of leading than is her brother. She shares her mother’s capacity for plotting and scheming and has assumed many of her mother’s mannerisms by the end of the novel. Interestingly enough, both Orestes and Electra refuse to hold their father responsible for Iphigenia’s death. But they have no qualms about blaming their mother for avenging her death.
Tóibín is at his best in his portrayal of Clytemnestra. He skillfully depicts her as larger than life, as the axis around which everyone revolves. She is a mother consumed with rage at a father who willingly sacrifices his daughter. She plots her revenge with meticulous care and relish. Her anger is augmented by her belief in the futility of the sacrifice since for her either the gods no longer exist or, if they do, they are indifferent to the actions of humans. Whatever sympathy one may initially feel for Clytemnestra rapidly dissipates, however, as we witness her plummeting in a vortex of cruelty, corruption, loneliness, paranoia, deception, and murder.
House of Names is an engaging read in spite of some of its drawbacks. Tóibín’s imaginative retelling of the story is compelling in many ways, especially in his portrait of Clytemnestra and in his depiction of the political intrigue and devious machinations plaguing the dysfunctional house of Atreus.