BookBrowse Reviews House of Names by Colm Toibin

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

House of Names

by Colm Toibin

House of Names by Colm Toibin X
House of Names by Colm Toibin
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2017, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2018, 288 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra - spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling - and her children.

While she might be considered one of the most notorious women in Greek mythology and, perhaps, its greatest villain, Clytemnestra's story has rarely been told fully or in her own voice. In Colm Tóibín's novel, Agamemnon's wife finally gets her due and claims her space and voice as her betrayal, loss, and descent are told from her perspective, as well as that of her daughter, Electra and her son, Orestes.

House of Names reclaims and humanizes the story of Clytemnestra - daughter of Leda, half-sister of Helen, and wife of Agamemnon - who is tricked into bringing her younger daughter to be sacrificed to the gods so her husband and the Greek armed forces can win the Trojan War. Though some of the details are altered from both The Oresteia and The Odyssey where her story is told, the narrative weaves together layers of myths and epics that honor the historical, literary, and mythological traditions to which this story belongs.

Tóibín's retelling shifts from the perspective of Clytemnestra to Orestes, then to Electra, to Orestes, to Clytemnestra, and ending, finally, with Orestes again. All of the threads and perspectives are woven together so beautifully that the villainy and treachery become human and not diabolical. While I was originally skeptical about Tóibín's appropriation of a female "I" in the cases of both Clytemnestra and Electra, I found that by using the limited third person to write Orestes' chapters, along with these two first person perspectives, he firmly centralized the female voices. Rather than relegating them to the position of reactive, emotional actors, we are always aware of Electra and her mother's pain and betrayal, and we also see them as each other's foil; the same scheming, cunning drive for revenge and power sits within both of them, though directed at different people. We see, before they can, that they are likely to suffer the same end.

The contrast between the first and limited third person narratives also shows the limitations of Orestes' real power; despite being Agamemnon's son and heir, Orestes lacks real agency, especially in comparison to his mother and sister who manipulate their surroundings while decrying the ways they must find to hold on to power as women in a patriarchal society. Orestes's thoughts and motivations are somewhat a mystery to both himself and the reader; he remains lost, knowing what he should do, who he should be, but without the acumen to claim his space. For him, rank becomes meaningless; even the memory of Iphigenia, who accepted her role as a sacrifice at her father's bequest, despite being lured to slaughter with the promise of marriage, commands more respect and power over Clytemnestra and Electra than he does. Thus, Tóibín uses his narrative to subvert understood gender-based power structures in his retelling of the Greek tragedy.

What could have become a trite, overwrought, emotional depiction of "woman goes mad with grief, and is further corrupted by power" and, therefore, a backwards-looking cautionary tale, is, instead, presented as moving and human. Tóibín's narrative leads the reader to a place of compassion for these characters, and a better understanding of why darkness may come to reside in the human heart.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2017, and has been updated for the March 2018 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Stories from Suffragette City
    Stories from Suffragette City
    by M.J. Rose, Fiona Davis
    Our First Impressions readers were fascinated by the historical fiction from a range of authors ...
  • Book Jacket: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
    The Mystery of Mrs. Christie
    by Marie Benedict
    The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict, notable author of previous historical fiction such ...
  • Book Jacket: To Be a Man
    To Be a Man
    by Nicole Krauss
    While, as its title hints, To Be a Man by Nicole Krauss is concerned with masculinity, it renders a ...
  • Book Jacket: The Office of Historical Corrections
    The Office of Historical Corrections
    by Danielle Evans
    In The Office of Historical Corrections, the second story collection from Danielle Evans, readers ...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Fortunate Ones
    by Ed Tarkington

    An engrossing story of class, love, and loyalty for fans of Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here.

    Reader Reviews
  • Book Jacket

    At the Edge of the Haight
    by Katherine Seligman

    Winner of the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

    Reader Reviews
Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Moment of Lift
by Melinda Gates
How can we summon a moment of lift for women? Because when you lift up women, you lift up humanity.
Who Said...

When all think alike, no one thinks very much

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

T M T C, T M T Stay T S

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.