A few books ago I read The Songs of the Kings by Barry Unsworth which is a retelling of Iphigenia in Aulis. It tells of the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father King Agamemnon which takes place before Homer’s Iliad. This book House of Names is what results from the sacrifice, when Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War. Toibin has used various sources here, Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, Sophocles’ Electra.
This novel opens with so much promise. The sacrifice of Iphigenia is brutally descriptive. There are no dramatic acts of self-sacrifice, this is a brutal savage act brought upon not only Iphigenia, but her mother Clytemnestra as well. After three days in a hole in the ground Clytemnestra returns home. She then has five, I don’t know what happened to the other four, years to plot the murder of her husband Agamemnon and add another chapter in the fall of the House of Atreus. Why Toibin changes the duration of the war is baffling.
Clytemnestra is the first narrator, and with her steering the ship, the book is quite brilliant. The problem is, and really you would think that this would be the novel’s strength, when it switches to Orestes perspective.
This is where the narrative starts to fail for me. Toibin attempts to invent a narrative for Agamemnon’s son Orestes. In all the myths and plays by the ancient writers, there is a period of years that Orestes just drops off the map. He is there for the sacrifice and then we don’t hear anything about him for years until he returns to avenge his father. There is so much potential here for Toibin to delve into Orestes character and psyche. How he feels after witnessing his sisters tragic sacrifice, let him talk to the reader in first person. Give him some dramatic adventures that we have come to expect from Greek Mythology. However, for some reason he leads the reader into a quagmire of boredom and banality. Orestes time is spent endlessly walking to an unknown destination, guided by guards who will not tell him anything. A silent kidnapping that Orestes fails to notice. I know that Toibin is going for a more realistic telling, the gods never make an appearance at all, but this main part of the narrative just feels too real. Realism does not have to mean boredom. Orestes in contrast to the myths, feels flat. An ersatz copy.
Then we have the parts narrated by Clytemnestra and Electra in the first person which are hauntingly beautiful, especially the part narrated by Clytemnestra’s ghost.
“There will come a time when the shadows fold in on me. I know that. But I am awake now or almost awake. I remember some things – outlines come to me, and the faint sound of voices. What linger most are traces, traces of people, presences, sounds. Mostly I walk among the shades, but sometimes a hint of someone comes close, someone whose name I once knew, or whose voice and face were real to me, someone I once loved perhaps. I am not sure.”
For me this novel was a mixture of highs and lows. The opening, exciting, descriptive, a very realistic telling of the sacrifice. Orestes part, long and drawn out, bordering on the tedious. Then the ending beautiful, sublime prose. I feel that if Orestes narrative was written in the same fashion as Clytemnestra and Electra, then this would have been a five star read for me.
Colm Toibin was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955. He studied at University College Dublin and lived in Barcelona between 1975 and 1978. Out of his experience in Barcelona be produced two books, the novel ‘The South’ (shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and winner of the Irish Times/ Aer Lingus First Fiction Award) and ‘Homage to Barcelona’, both published in 1990. When he returned to Ireland in 1978 he worked as a journalist for ‘In Dublin’, ‘Hibernia’ and ‘The Sunday Tribune’, becoming features editor of ‘In Dublin’ in 1981 and editor of Magill, Ireland’s current affairs magazine, in 1982. He left Magill in 1985 and travelled in Africa and South America. His journalism from the 1980s was collected in ‘The Trial of the Generals’ (1990). His other work as a journalist and travel writer includes ‘Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border’ (1987) and ‘The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe’ (1994). His other novels are: ‘The Heather Blazing (1992, winner of the Encore Award); ‘The Story of the Night’ (1996, winner of the Ferro-Grumley Prize); ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ (1999, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize and the Booker Prize and made into a film starring Angela Lansbury); ‘The Master’ (2004, winner of the Dublin IMPAC Prize; the Prix du Meilleur Livre; the LA Times Novel of the Year; and shortlisted for the Booker Prize); ‘Brooklyn’ (2009, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year). His short story collections are ‘Mothers and Sons’ (2006, winner of the Edge Hill Prize) and ‘The Empty Family (2010). His play ‘Beauty in a Broken Place’ was performed at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin in 2004. His other books include: ‘The Modern Library: the 200 Best Novels Since 1950’ (with Carmen Callil); ‘Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush’ (2002); ‘Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar’ (2002) and ‘All a Novelist Needs: Essays on Henry James’ (2010). He has edited ‘The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction’. His work has been translated into thirty languages. In 2008, a book of essays on his work ‘Reading Colm Toibin’, edited by Paul Delaney, was published. He has received honorary doctorates from the University of Ulster and from University College Dublin. He is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books. In 2006 he was appointed to the Arts Council in Ireland. He has twice been Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford University and also been a visiting writer at the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently Leonard Milberg Lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University.
There is an interview with Toibin here -