Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reimagined Greek Tragedy: House of Names by Colm Toibin

In House of Names, Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster, retells the ancient Greek story of one of the most brutal and murderous families ever imagined. Blood is paid with blood: a wife murders her husband, a parent sacrifices his daughter, children murder their parents.

Tobin's his beautiful, clear writing allows four central characters to speak for themselves.

Clytemnestra was claimed by hero Agamemnon when he slew her husband. She has born him daughters Iphigenia and Electra and son Orestes.

Agamemnon's brother's wife Helen has been kidnapped. They plan to attack the Trojans and bring her back. But the gods have prevented them from setting sail. Agamemnon asks Clytemnestra prepare Iphigenia for marriage; in reality, he sacrifices her to the gods, an expiation for his sin, so the soldiers at last may go to war.

Betrayed by Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and plots her revenge with help from Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returns with war trophy Cassandra, his wife welcomes him home, then slits his throat. She has arranged to have Orestes and other boys taken to 'safety.'

Orestes relates his story of exile and return only to learn his mother had murdered his father.

Electra learns her mother murdered her father and plots her revenge. Upon her brother's return, she instructs him to commit matricide.

Leander, who was Orestes friend in exile, has discovered Clytemnestra murdered his entire family, and he raises an army.

The novel has wonderful characterization. I was compelled to continue reading. But I was left wondering, why? Why bring this story, now, to a new generation? What can we learn?

Obviously, it is a revenge story, on the human level and on behalf of the gods. Agamemnon is part of the cursed House of Atreus. Here is how it started:

Zeus' son Tantalus murdered his own son Pelops to feed to the gods. The gods arranged to have Pelops brought back to life. Later Pelops and his house were cursed by a son of Hermes.

Pelops' children Atreus and Thyestes killed a half-brother and were banished. Atreus discovered that Thyestes was having an affair with his wife, so he murdered Thyestes's sons and dished them up in a stew to their father.

Atreus's children included Agamemnon  and Menelaus. Thyestes also had a son with his daughter, Aegisthus, and that son killed Atreus.

Agamemnon kills his daughter, his wife kills him, and their son, encouraged by their daughter, kills his mother.

You see a pattern here? Once you start murdering there is no end. One may see the story as a metaphor with unlimited applications.

I received a free ebook from the pubisher through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

House of Names
Colm Toibin
Scribner
Publication May 18, 2017