House of Names by Colm Toibin

house of names

One of my favorite Irish writers, and absolutely on form here. He’s often criticised for writing the same story over and over again, a charge to which he has been known to reply, “No one ever said I couldn’t”. Almost always set in Dublin, via Wexford, his protagonists are often the victims of an early parental bereavement, generally manifested by a cruel illness. Years later, we tend to find the same protagonist still marked by a deeply buried emotional trauma, rootless and lonely. If you transplant that framework to ancient Greece, and replace cancer as the cause of death with marital murder, you go some way to describing the plot of House of Names. Toibín takes on the story of the Oresteia, a hugely important play in the dramatic canon and one of the western world’s most famous dramas. Negotiating such a well known story was always going to be a challenge, and Toibín has confessed in interviews to feeling nervous about the task, but he succeeds in putting his own stamp on the narrative, without diluting its power or changing it beyond recognition to suit his purposes. Of course if one is familiar with the story, there won’t be any major surprises but Toibín does the novel’s form affords Toibín space to expand upon the Greece the conquering heroes of Troy return to, amongst them the sinister Aegisthus, lover of Clytemnestra. Split into three sections, the reader can enjoy the narrative from the point of view of all the principle members of Agammemon’s family; Clytemnestra’s rage at Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Electra’s quest for vengeance and the matricidal Orestes. If you’re a fan of Toibín, this is as good as of his previous, and if you’re fan of the classics, this is a wonderful interpretation that is definitely worth a read.


You can reserve online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue online. 

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