‘The House of Names’ a haunting retelling of an ancient tale

Monday, June 19, 2017 - 6:45pm

Most of Colm Tóibín’s best known books take place either in Ireland or in the journeys  physical and emotional  that come from traveling between Ireland and America. His most well-known book, “Brooklyn,” is a tender, poignant account of a young woman who must make the choice between what is familiar and warm, and what has the potential to change her life; it is a gorgeous portrayal of life in New York in the early 1950s, (well-served, incidentally, by the film adaptation) and has some of the most delicate descriptions of the trials of everyday life that I’ve ever read. “Nora Webster” is another one; it tells the story of a recently widowed woman with three children who must learn to adapt to their new life. Even as it breaks your heart, it fills you, irrevocably, with fierce hope.

Tóibín’s newest book, “The House of Names,” is an abrupt shift in tone and time; he has jumped from the contemporary to the ancient, from recent history to myth itself. It opens with a sacrifice that will be instantly recognizable to lovers of ancient Greek legends and the works of Aeschylus and Euripides, that of Iphigenia, the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Her father has decided to sacrifice his middle child in the hopes of placating the gods into bestowing upon him a military victory. The rest of the book is told in the alternating perspectives of Clytemnestra and her remaining children, her son Orestes and his older sister Electra.

Clytemnestra, unable to stop her husband or believe what he has done, finds her heart has turned to ice against him. She plots to murder him, with the help of his formerly imprisoned enemy. Successful, she transcends into a state of triumphant widowhood, feared — if not entirely respected — throughout the castle grounds. Orestes, sent away after Iphigenia’s sacrifice by his mother, ostensibly for his own protection, grows up isolated from his family. Once he makes his way back, he is treated with suspicion and eventual contempt, after he helps his older sister in her own murderous plans.

“The House of Names” is edgier that Tóibín’s other works without being rough around the edges; the book is cut like glass, no unnecessary words, every sentence landing neatly after the other. It luridly evokes the spikiness of betrayal, the oozing odium of parents who kill their children and children who kill their parents. Skeletal hands reach out from piles of rotting bodies. Ghosts haunt the hallways, voices echo around corners, eyes glitter in the dark. Bitterness and backstabbing abound, and there’s no resolution at the end.

There are reasons that ancient myths like these have endured; Tóibín has found those reasons and set them free within the confines of this book.