House of Names by Colm Tóibín | The re-telling of a Greek tragedy

House of Names by Colm Tóibín is the retelling of a Greek tragedy so it’s not surprising that vengeance, betrayal and passion are central themes. Arguably the real themes, however, are maternal anger and exile.

The mother in question is Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon. The root of her anger is the murder at Agamemnon’s command of their eldest daughter Iphigenia. This happens when Agamemnon tricks Iphigenia into thinking that she is to marry the warrior Achilles. However, when the wedding party arrives at Agamnenon’s camp, Iphigenia is instead sacrificed to the gods.

Iphigenia’s young brother, Orteses witnesses the killing. But it is  Clytemnestra who sets out for revenge securing assistance from a Rasputin-like former prisoner called Aegisthus.

Writing about Clytemnestra is not the first time that Tóibín has addressed maternal anger. The theme is present in The Testament of Mary and also — albeit in very different circumstances — in Nora Webster.

Exile in House of Names

Aegisthus goes behind Clytemnestra’s back and arranges the kidnapping of Orteses. This leads to a long period of exile for the young boy. At first, he is a prisoner with a group of other boys. He befriends a boy called Leander and, together with another boy, escapes. The next stage of his exile is the journey home. The boys’ odyssey is long and dangerous with violent encounters and losses along the way. At times, I thought this section of the book too long. But perhaps that is the point of exile! By the time they finally arrive, Orteses has left childhood behind.

Electra

Meanwhile, all this time, Agamemnon’s second daughter Electra has lived with Clytemnestra. A silent witness to intrigue and murder, Electra talks mostly to the ghosts of her father and sister while she waits for Orteses to return. She watches the comings and goings of her mother and Aegisthus and observes the shifting allegiances of their guards. She is the least noticed character but the one who perhaps sees and understands most.

In a sense all of the characters are like masked actors in Greek tragedy. There is a shadowy quality to them but their motivations touch on universal themes so they draw you into the story and linger in memory long after you close the book.

[Disclosure: Penguin provided an advance review copy of House of Names via Netgalley]

Girl Unknown by Karen Perry | Review

It’s not often I read a book in a single sitting, but that’s exactly what happened with Girl Unknown by Karen Perry.

Part domestic drama, part psychological thriller, this story is about what happens when a first year student walks into a Professor’s office and claims to be his daughter.

The professor is David Connolly. He is a history professor in UCD and is in line for promotion. Caroline, his wife, was a stay at home mother but recently returned to work. She is an advertising executive. They have two children: Holly is 11 while Robbie is doing his Junior Cert.

When Zoë Barry turns up, David is at first not sure if she really is his daughter. In fact, he’s so unsure he arranges a surreptitious DNA test. Soon, however, he comes to believe she’s genuine.

David feels protective towards Zoë. When he introduces her to his family, things seem to go okay at first. At least, that’s how it looks from his point of view. But Caroline sees another side of Zoë. Nevertheless, partly because she feels guilty about unresolved issues from the past, Caroline allows Zoë into their home.

Gradually Zoë exploits tensions in the Connolly marriage. She exposes vulnerabilities and this threatens the Connolly’s security.

As Girl Unknown unfolds, Holly and Robbie play important roles but are less well realised than the other characters.

David and Caroline are well drawn and believable characters. The unresolved issues in their relationship leave them open to exploitation and Zoe knows how to take advantage.

The story is told from David’s and Caroline’s points of view. Zoë’s character emerges through their interactions with her.

Consequently, Zoë is somewhat less developed. While her motivations become clearer as the story progresses, she’s a bit of an enigma. She’s vulnerable but also manipulative.

At many points in this story it’s not what’s said, but rather what’s left unsaid that has the greatest impact.

Girl Unknown is a short, intense read with interesting twists, including a totally unexpected one at the end.

[Disclosure: I received an advance review copy via Netgalley]