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]

Nora Webster – A Quiet and Profound Novel by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel is set in the 1960s and early 1970s. The location will be familiar to Tóibín readers. It is his native County Wexford in seaside villages Ballyconniger, Blackwater, Curracloe and nearby towns of Enniscorthy and Bunclody. These places are beautifully present on the page as the backdrop for an intensely focused study of character and grief.

Wexford is famous for its international opera festival and music plays an important role in Nora Webster. References to civil unrest in Northern Ireland and the political differences between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey will have particular resonance for Irish readers familiar with this period.

As always, Tóibín writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people. He has the gift of making the ordinary seem profound.

The novel opens with Tóibín’s heroine, Nora Webster struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband.  Well-meaning neighbours from their small, tightly-knit community offer sympathy. They call to her house each evening and to talk and share stories about her late husband. But Nora realises that the past cannot be rescued from their memories.

She faces the practical difficulties of trying to keep her home together while she finds a way to live without the anchor of her husband.

Nora longs for the questions and the sympathy to cease. She finds it hard to respond to those who offer their sympathy looking into her eyes and waiting for her reaction.

Intense grief

So intense and personal is her grief, that Nora is emotionally neglectful of her children and surprisingly blind to their loss — particularly that of her sons Conor and Donal who are clearly struggling— and yet she is capable of tremendous understanding and empathy and fearlessly stands up for them when she is put to the test.

Tóibín shows empathy for his heroine but is also unsentimental. When she takes up singing Nora unlocks a gift she inherited from her late mother. Through her singing, she Nora she finds solace and a route to independence. So, her recovery comes not from the sympathies of friends and neighbours but from her inner resources.

Character and place take precedence over plot in Nora Webster.  This is a quiet, atmospheric novel that in my opinion represents Tóibín at his best.

[Disclosure: I received an Advance Review Copy of Nora Webster from the publisher via Netgalley]

See also Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.