‘They made their way outside and stood on the steps, taking in the dawn light, fuller now, more complete, as it always would be once the day began, no matter who came and went, or who was born, or what was forgotten or remembered. In time, what had happened would haunt no one and belong to no one, once they themselves had passed on into the darkness and into the abiding shadows.’

I approached this work of historical fiction with some curiosity. The last time that I read Colm Tóibín, I completed The Testament of Mary in one sitting. It provided an interesting perspective on an old tale and I was glad to see him return to this formula for his new book, House of Names.

On this occasion, Tóibín writes about Clytemnestra and her children. Set during the time of Ancient Greece, Clytemnestra is the wife of King Agamemnon. The story largely takes place after Agamemnon’s successful sacking of and return from Troy. As a big fan of that classic tale, it was great to read about the events that happened after. Tóibín excellently breaths life into a story of murder and betrayal.

Clytemnestra has three children. As the story begins, her beautiful daughter Iphigeneia is promised to the warrior demigod Achilles. Her younger sister Electra watches in the wings as Iphigeneia’s proposed marriage falls through in spectacular fashion. Clytemnestra never recovers from this act of betrayal and begins to harbour vengeful ambitions. Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, is the youngest of her children and grows up amongst these plots and schemes. The story is told in four parts, giving each character a voice and perspective on the dramatic events that follow.

It is the slippery and sly prisoner, Aegisthus, who steals the show however. Initially a captive of Agamemnon, he charms his way out of his cell to rule at Clytemnestra’s side.

‘He knows what power is. His knowledge disturbs the air in the house.’

Aegisthus seems to have the power to bend almost everyone to his will. He charms wild birds, house servants and guards and always seems to have an army of helpers lying in the shadows awaiting his orders. For those who despise him, he also has a gentle way of keeping them under tabs.

‘He has us like the eagle that captures smaller birds and bites their wings off and keeps them alive so that they will nourish it when the time is right.’

Ultimately there are no winners in a story like this. Betrayal and bloodshed light up the page of this novel as the characters scramble for power and survival. As an author reviving an old story, Tóibín is never overbearing and manages the plot with a careful pair of hands. In this way, the legend of Clytemnestra’s maternal rage lives on.

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

Fan of the classic tale of Troy and Tóibín’s previous novel Testament of Mary will be interested in this one. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aenied; Ancient Greece is famous for some of the greatest stories ever told. It is fantastic to see authors such as Tóibín keeping them alive and interesting.

Afterthought

  • The digital edition of this book that I received opened with a note more or less giving the entire story away. If you don’t like spoilers and want to look at the story with fresh eyes, I’d skip this part

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