Reviewed by Ella Tierney

Colm Tóibín’s House of Names is based very closely on the ancient classics of Aeschylus (The Oresteia),Sophocles (Electra)and Euripides (Electra, Orestes, and Iphigenia at Aulis). He references each of these works explicitly in an author’s note at the end of the novel, where he admits that while much of his book comes from his imagination, the framework is preexisting. This sentiment holds true: House of Names is undoubtedly different from its sources, but it is a faithful adaptation in many ways. Tóibín brings out a couple modern themes in the story, but he mostly fills in gaps and expands upon preexisting elements, offering intimate glimpses into the psyche of key characters to make them vivid and compelling. Arguably, Tóibín remains so faithful to source material and style that he fails to make a truly successful modern work, but perhaps capturing the essence of an ancient work in a 21st century book is a success in and of itself.

House of Names tells the story of violence and retribution in the House of Atreus. Each of the characters plays a part in perpetuating a vicious cycle of revenge, and it seems that Tóibín’s goal is to demonstrate the dangers of that retaliatory behavior, for it never ends well for anyone. Agamemnon begins the conflict when he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods to get the wind to blow once more and carry his ships to the Trojan War. His wife, Clytemnestra, accompanies her daughter, and, with strikingly clear reasoning, immediately resolves to kill her husband. She returns home and spends several years planning alongside Aegisthus, a former enemy and prisoner of the family, to murder her husband when he returns from the war and to take power when he is dead. When Agamemnon returns with Cassandra, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus kill them both, and neatly take power for themselves in the process. The perspective then shifts to Orestes, who has been sent away by Aegisthus in the midst of all this, and here is where Tóibín begins to fill in the gaps. Orestes is taken to a bunker where many other important children of Mycenae are being kept but escapes with two other boys and find shelter with an old woman at a house in the countryside, and the three of them stay there for several years. When Orestes at last returns to Mycenae with Leander, one of the boys he escaped with, he is wholly unprepared for the mess of secrets and family politics that he walks into: the hysteria of Clytemnestra as she struggles for power with Aegisthus, and the palpable resentment of Electra, his sister, against their mother. In his ignorance, Orestes is influenced heavily by the people around him, and eventually helps Electra carry out her plan to kill their mother, following his sister’s instructions closely. Once Clytemnestra is dead, Orestes is excluded from the circle of authority, both due to his own ignorance, having been kept from the kingdom for years, and his lack of ambition: he notices that he is excluded, but doesn’t make an effort to force his way in. This is where the book ends: with the kingdom reconfiguring and Orestes passively looking on. It seems purposely ambiguous and inconclusive, not ruling out the possibility of punishment for Orestes that is described in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.

In comparison to its ancient sources, House of Names is fairly similar. It changes very little of the core plot, only adding things to expand the narrative and really explore characterization and motivation. Perhaps the most striking parts of the book are its scenes of brutal violence. Killing was always done offstage in the plays of antiquity and described in beautiful language before the audience after the fact. Tóibín’s prose, on the other hand, is simple and unforgiving: “pushing the blade farther into his neck, I began to drag it slowly across his throat, slicing deep into him as blood flowed in easy, gurgling waves down his chest and into the water of the bath. And then he fell. It was done” (63). These characters do terrible things to one another, and he doesn’t want his readers to be able to shy away from that, doesn’t want them to forget the cost of this unending cycle of revenge. Clytemnestra, the most brutal and frank character in the book, is not so different from her characterization in ancient literature. She is cruel and cunning, yet understandable: a mother avenging the violent death of her daughter. The first-person narration of her thoughts makes her a vivid, palpable character, her hatred incredibly compelling and powerful. Electra’s characterization is more varied in the ancient sources. She is always cunning and independent, willing to take matters into her own hands before Orestes shows up to help, and then planning alongside him when he does. It depends on the source, however, in determining how hands-on she is with the actual murder. In Euripides’ Electra, she literally holds the sword with Orestes as he kills Clytemnestra (offstage, of course). In House of Names, there is a different division of power. There is no teamwork between Electra and Orestes in terms of plotting. Electra does it all: she plants the weapon and chooses the time and employs her own guards to make sure it all goes smoothly. Orestes is simply the device she employs to commit the murder, following her directions and doing exactly as he’s told. Here lies the most dramatic change in characterization that Tóibín makes in his book: Orestes has almost no power or agency of his own. In ancient sources, he is not always full of conviction (in Euripides’ Electra, Electra has to convince Orestes to go through with the murder when he begins having doubts), but he is always an active participant, working alongside Electra to lay the groundwork and helping her deal with the aftermath. In House of Names, Orestes is used by other characters to do what they are unwilling to. The character himself recognizes this: “He was not wanted here, he saw, the same as he had not been needed anywhere, except when Electra needed him to do something that she would not do herself or when Leander needed him to escape with him so they could protect Mitros” (267). 

As a modern work, House of Names makes some changes that make this ancient story accessible and acceptable to modern audiences. There is an emphasis on feminine power and rage throughout the story, and the most dominant characters in the book are undoubtedly Clytemnestra and Electra. They are unforgiving and cruel yet made understandable through their trauma and grief.  Tóibín recognizes and validates their power, making them complex characters where ancient authors dismissed them as villains because they were women who behaved like men. Clytemnestra’s and Electra’s sections are told through an intimate first-person narration, and they are the most engaging sections to read. Orestes, by comparison, is a distant and vague character. His parts are told through third person, and because he never has a definitive stance on anything, readers never really get a sense of who he is. He is gentle and passive, yet willing to murder in cold blood when he is told to. His inconsistency is a conscious choice on Tóibín’s part, showing that even the most submissive and unassuming people can play a part in immense violence, but it makes Orestes sections (which make up the majority of the book) less interesting to read. Another striking choice that Tóibín makes is to almost entirely erase the role of the gods from the story. They are mentioned only in passing, and never by name, and seem to have very little to do with how things play out. At the very beginning of the book, Clytemnestra says “I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed” (6). The existence of gods is acknowledged by some characters (Electra, Orestes), but it becomes clear that no one thinks the gods actually control the actions of humans. What is left, then, but to accept that humans alone are responsible for their decisions. This puts human cruelty and revenge at center stage and gives the characters no room to shy away from what they have done. Unlike in ancient sources, where Apollo tells Orestes to murder his mother and so he has no choice, Orestes kills Clytemnestra out of his own free will, though influenced by Electra. It also means that Iphigenia, whose death catalyzes the entire story, died in vain: not as a concession to the gods for better wind, but as a young girl needlessly murdered by her father. Indeed, this change in the story humanizes the characters, making them not the favorites of the divine but an incredibly flawed family in the midst of a struggle for power and vengeance.

In essence, Colm Tóibín strives to bridge the gap between the styles of modern and ancient literature. He makes the book not only appealing to modern audiences, with its strong female characters and compelling lack of divinity, but realistic to us as well. Ancient mythology was largely unconcerned with continuity and logic, but Tóibín fills in gaps in the narrative and makes characters three dimensional and understandable. He does, however, try to give House of Namesthe same feel as ancient mythology with its prophetic, detached diction; it mostly works, especially in narration from Clytemnestra and Electra, but at times, especially alongside Orestes’ aloof perspective, it can become almost boring and prevent immersion into the story. The New Yorker’s review of the book is especially unforgiving: “The diction, as so often in modern attempts to render ancient voices, wobbles between being strenuously high and, sometimes, jarringly banal.” Tóibín works so hard to humanize his characters and bring them down from the pedestal upon which the ancients placed them, yet he tries to make the story feel mythological at the same time, but he can’t have both. The characters are undoubtedly human and flawed, but they still seem untouchable somehow: too removed to be really understandable.

House of Names certainly succeeds in Tóibíns goal in showing the dangers of unchecked revenge. The story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes is one of the most famous stories of family tragedy that we have to look back on, and it is a natural and evocative choice to have this story revolve around them. Even ancient authors told this story to warn against unchecked, personal retaliation, but Tóibín adds some thought-provoking elements to keep readers engaged and invested in the story. Because of the detailed violence, it is a book probably best suited for advanced high school readers and up who, if they enjoy House of Names, should try reading The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes, another modern retelling of an ancient familial drama, this one centering around Oedipus and his tragedy. Modern audiences have a lot to learn from ancient stories, and it is the mission of authors like Tóibín to enhance these stories and make them appealing to readers today. On the whole, Tóibín succeeds in doing this; House of Names is a provocative, captivating book that explores the dynamics of an ancient family and forces readers to consider questions of action and consequence, retaliation and responsibility, that transcend the centuries between origin and reception.

The New Yorker article: