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.
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]