I’m always interested to see how contemporary writers retell stories from the ancient world. When it’s done well, it can lead to a fascinating interplay between the ancient and modern versions of the stories – for instance, see my previous review of a wonderful collection of short stories based (loosely) around the Odyssey. I had pretty high hopes when House of Names, by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, was published in 2017. The book is based on the myths of the House of Atreus, as told in various Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia on his departure to the Trojan War; his murder, and that of the Trojan princess Cassandra, by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus on his return; her subsequent murder by her son Orestes, encouraged by his sister Electra). Plenty of scope for a novelist of Tóibín’s talents (his novel on Irish migration to America, Brooklyn, won the Costa Book award and became a bestseller, and I can definitely recommend it) – and also, I have to say, an excellent cover, with the swallows from the Spring Fresco of Akrotiri.
The novel’s first-person, present-tense narration switches viewpoints between the three main characters – Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes – starting with Clytemnestra recalling the killing of her daughter Iphigenia and leading up to her murder of Agamemnon in retaliation. The opening sentence she narrates sets the tone straight away: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” No glossing over the brutality of the myths here; bodies are left out in the sun to rot and the smell permeates the whole palace. The multiple-viewpoint narration seems like it ought to give a very interesting approach to the story – after all, the whole cycle of murders is founded on a series of people making horrific decisions in terrible situations, each based on an utterly opposed set of principles that can’t be reconciled, so a retelling that makes the reader see events from all of their different points of view should be a great way of showing the tensions between them and humanising each character as they are forced to make their terrible choices.
Unfortunately, for me, the novel doesn’t really live up to its promise. The narration feels rather flat, and I never felt I was getting all that much of an insight into the characters: even as they’re narrating in the first person they stay quite distant, and overall none of them ends up seeming very fleshed-out. In this version, Clytemnestra is the main actor in the murders of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, but she soon realises that Aegisthus has exploited the opportunity to take control himself – after which she’s largely reduced to the same situation as Electra, waiting powerlessly for Orestes to return, which seems like an awful waste of a character who’s far stronger and more interesting in Aeschylus’ version. There’s a lot of focus on the oppressive political and family atmosphere of the palace – repression of dissent by Aegisthus’ soldiers, kidnapping of children as hostages, disappearances of resistors, alongside Electra’s narration of her experiences in this uneasy royal household – but again, the flatness of the narration and dialogue means this is never as effective an exploration of personal and political oppression as it feels like it should be. Since Aegisthus isn’t one of the viewpoint characters, you don’t get his experiences of the situation to contrast with those of Electra and Clytemnestra (and the same goes for Agamemnon). In the end, I was rather disappointed with House of Names – it wasn’t a bad retelling of the myths, exactly, but it wasn’t nearly as exciting or powerful as I expected one by Tóibín to be. It certainly hasn’t replaced my current favourite modern retelling of these myths, Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings (which came out in 2002, but perhaps I’ll write a very-long-overdue review of it some day!) But maybe other readers will disagree with me – let me know what you thought of House of Names in the comments!