House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who lives in a small town in Ireland with her mother and sister. It’s the 1950s, only a few years after the end of World War II and it’s not easy to find a good job in a town like Enniscorthy. When Eilis is offered the chance to work and study in New York she leaves her family behind and prepares to start a new life in Brooklyn. After a traumatic journey across the Atlantic, we see how she settles into her new home and job, struggles with homesickness and makes new friends. But it’s during a trip home to Ireland that Eilis is faced with making the biggest decision of her life…

Brooklyn is a warm, gentle story with an old-fashioned charm. It’s not the most original book I’ve ever read and it’s not the most exciting or dramatic, but when I picked it up and started reading, I found it was just what I was in the mood for. Tóibín tells his story using simple language and a controlled, understated writing style and it was actually quite refreshing to read a book with such clear, direct prose and such a straightforward plot. The book was published in 2009 (and made the Booker Prize long list that year) but if I hadn’t been aware of that I could almost have believed it was written in Eilis’s own era because it does somehow have a very 1950s feel.

Eilis herself is a pleasant, likeable person. Looking at other reviews, many people have complained that she is too passive, allowing other people to run her life for her. I could accept her passivity as part of her quiet, innocent personality, though I agree that it didn’t make her a particularly strong or memorable character. I thought some of the minor characters were more interesting to read about – such as Georgina, the woman who befriends Eilis on her nightmare ocean crossing, or Miss Kelly, who runs the local shop in Enniscorthy where Eilis used to work. We stay with Eilis’s perspective throughout the whole book which means we only get to see the other characters when they are interacting with her directly, but something Tóibín does very successfully is to explore the relationships between Eilis and the important people in her life.

The book does touch on some of the social issues of the time – we learn a little bit about Ireland’s economy, the Holocaust is briefly mentioned, and we get a glimpse of racism in 1950s New York when Eilis starts serving black customers at Bartocci’s department store. But although those issues and others are there in the background they don’t form a major part of the plot. Instead, the focus of Brooklyn is very much on Eilis and the things that affect her personally: her new job at Bartocci’s, studying bookkeeping at evening classes, making new friends and visiting her boyfriend. The reader is immersed completely in the small details of Eilis’s daily life, something which could easily have become very boring, but in Tóibín’s hands is fascinating and compelling.

I haven’t personally had the experience of living in another country and I’m not sure how I would feel about it, but there were still parts of Eilis’ story that resonated with me and that I could identify with. I loved Brooklyn – and I was happy with the way the book ended too!