Review

Colm Toibin offers retelling of a bloody Greek myth in House Of Names

Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

In his latest compact novella, Irish writer Colm Toibin takes on Greek myths and reanimates the bloody tale of Clytemnestra with buckets of gore and a vivid sense of contemporary existentialist despair.

He has tackled the muted voice of a female before, most memorably in 2012's Booker Prize-nominated The Testament Of Mary, where he brought to life the maternal fear and desperation of Jesus Christ's mother.

Clytemnestra's key note, in contrast to Mary's sometimes uncomprehending anguish, is matriarchal fury. And the full force of her vengeance is directed at her hapless husband Agamemnon, who chooses, fatally, to follow the gods' fickle commands and sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, so as to facilitate the journey of his army to lay fateful siege to the city of Troy.

This is a family bound by blood in every sense of the word: Iphigenia's death at the hands of her father is followed by her father's murder by her mother, which in turn incites the murderous plotting of her siblings, Electra and Orestes.

There seems to be no end to this web of death and destruction, from the moment the tale opens with Clytemnestra's primal incantation: "I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafts in the wind towards the room in this palace."

The smell comes from the decaying bodies of her husband and the prize he has borne home from his victory - his mistress, the prophetess Cassandra. After murdering them, Clytemnestra has ordered that their bodies be left out to rot for a couple of days, "until the sweetness gave way to stench".

  • FICTION

  • HOUSE OF NAMES

    By Colm Toibin Viking/Paperback/262 pages/ $29.91 /Books Kinokuniya

    4/5 stars

Toibin plays with the contrast of life and death, sweetness and decay, hunger and satiation to graphic effect in his opening pages, evoking an instant sense of contemporaneity with our modern age of mass murder and casual violence. He mines Greek myths, not for poesy but for what their narratives reveal the most primitive drives of the human heart.

Clytemnestra, even as she rages and grieves for Iphigenia, acknowledges her maternal failure in neglecting Electra in the aftermath: "I should have had her join me in my rage. Instead, I left her free to have her own rage, much of it directed against me."

Electra, living under the pall of her sister's death and kept in the dark about her mother's plotting, declares: "I live in the shadows. I have an intimate relationship with silence and thus I am sure when it is safe for someone to whisper."

Intriguingly, the women speak in the first person while Orestes is distanced by a third-person narrative. Toibin seems determined to give voice to the women whose lives are driven by the decisions of men. The simmering, writhing wrath of these women, cloaked by feminine helplessness in a male-dominated world, shades the story with menace and malice.

Orestes, the male heir of the Mycenaean kingdom upon whom moral authority would seem to rest in the traditional trajectory of such narratives, is instead simply a confused youth unable to assert his voice amid a din of other viewpoints.

The loose anecdotal structure of the book, teetering on the edge of collapse as it bounces between Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, suits the fraying nature of the narrative, where the messy failures of family bleed from one generation to the next.

By the end of the story, when a birth might seem, in a less claustrophobic text, to signal hope and redemption, the inevitable conclusion seems to lead to poet Philip Larkin's infamous lines: "They f*** you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do."

Hell, it would seem, is family in this bracing book which reinvigorates Greek myths for a bleak new millennium.

If you like this, read: The Testament Of Mary by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 2014, $21.52, Books Kinokuniya), a movingly powerful evocation of maternal love and despair in a woman who does not understand her child.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Retelling of a bloody Greek myth'. Print Edition | Subscribe