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]

The Good People by Hannah Kent | Review

The Good People by Hannah Kent is an engrossing read.

Set in County Kerry, Ireland in the 1820s it’s a richly imagined story about folk beliefs. This is a very visual, sensory and atmospheric novel. Kent describes water pooled outside a doorstep  as “tight with ice”, robins “bloodsmocked against the sky”.

The story centres on three women brought together by a disabled child.

When her husband Martin drops dead at a crossroads, Nóra Leahy is left alone with their grandson Micheál.

The son of her only daughter, Johanna, Micheál was born a healthy infant. But after Johanna’s death, he became sickly and, by the  age of 4, could no longer speak nor walk.

When Johanna’s husband leaves Micheál with Nóra and Martin, Nóra hides him away because she doesn’t want the neighbours to see his disabilities. Martin seems to have a connection with the child but Nóra sees only the changes in her grandson and she finds it hard to cope with him. So, after Martin’s death, Nóra  hires a maid, Mary Clifford, to help care for the boy. Mary is fourteen and comes from a large family. She is used to caring for young children and is kind and caring to Micheál.

The Good People and Changelings

But soon, stories about Micheál begin to spread and neighbours blame him when things go wrong. Nóra thinks he’s a changeling. She believes the ‘good people’ stole her grandson away and left a disabled child in his place. As she becomes more convinced about this, she grows more distant from the boy.

When neither priest nor doctor can help Micheál, Nóra turns to a a healer. Nance Keogh has ‘the knowledge’ to cure ailments and understands the ‘good people’ so Nóra believes that Nance can restore her grandson.

As Nóra, Nance and Mary attempt help Micheál, their efforts lead to danger and elements of the attempted cures may upset some readers. But, like Hannah Kent’s earlier work, Burial Rites, The Good People is a well-researched and absorbing read that draws you in from the first sentence and hold you till the last. I loved it.

[Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of The Good People via Netgalley]

Days without End by Sebastian Barry : A lyrical western

Last month, Days without End by Sebastian Barry won the 2016 Costa Novel Award.

It’s the story of two young men — Thomas McNulty and John Cole — who join the US army in the 1850s. They become cavalry men and fight in the Indian and American civil wars.

Their experiences are harsh, sometimes brutal, but the relationship that McNulty and Cole build sustains them through these hardships.

One particularly shocking scene describes the sacking of an Indian encampment.

Reading Days without End reminded me of the black & white westerns we watched on TV as children. They were stories about war, bravery, courage and betrayal. Tribal and human differences, conflict and peacemaking — sometimes savage,  sometimes scary, sometimes sentimental often showing both the worst and the best of men.

Barry previously won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2008 with The Secret Scripture, the story of elderly woman facing an uncertain future when the mental institution where she spent most of her life is threatened with closure.

A miracle of a book

The Costa Book Award judges describe Days without End as “A miracle of a book – both epic and intimate – that manages to create spaces for love and safety in the noise and chaos of history.”

Barry’s writing is mesmerising — rich, resonant, poignant and thought-provoking. While the action takes place  in the 1850s,  his themes have contemporary echoes.

McNulty’s crossing to America, for example — a consequence of the 1840s Irish Famine — calls to mind more recent refugee crises.

These contemporary parallels help to make Days without End a much more accessible read than, for example, Joseph O’Connor’s American civil war novel, Redemption Falls.  That said, I found Barry’s latest work a slower read than some of his earlier novels, but a satisfying one.

Faber & Faber publish Days without End by Sebastian Barry. I received an advance review copy through Netgalley.

If you like the sound of this book, you might also like The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry.