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May 9th, 2017

House of Names

Today, Simon and Schuster released Colm Toibin's latest novel, House of Names, about Clytemnestra and the murder of Agamemnon.  Anybody who knows me knows I've had this on pre-order since I heard about it months ago.  Because I live on the West Coast, I received my copy at midnight Eastern Daylight Time, and managed to finish it around 3 a.m.

Did I enjoy it? I'm not sure.  Toibin writes beautifully, but the story left me wanting.  There's a cool detachment about the prose.  Clytemnestra's sections are among the book's most effective.  Who can't sympathize with a mother whose plan to save her daughter from being sacrificed fails, and then spends three whole days being held underground with no food, water, or room to move--basically, being buried alive?  Who wouldn't want revenge?  She allies herself with Aegisthus, a powerful political prisoner, whose web of connections and malice run deeper than even she knows.

Orestes and Electra each have sections of the book.  Toibin starts to paint a vivid picture of Electra, but doesn't go far enough.  And his Orestes.  I enjoyed Orestes' first section, in which he's quickly forced to go from spoiled nine-year-old prince to prisoner to a five-year-stint in a remote place with his friends Mitros and Leander.  Leander is the not-Pylades of the novel, in that he fulfills the Pylades role of older friend, mentor, and, briefly, lover, but ends up usurping Orestes' male authority.  Perhaps that's what bothered me the most about the novel, aside from the abrupt and unsatisfying end.  Orestes doesn't take the insane route, rather the Hamlet-esque role of male impotence.  His motivation to kill Clytemnestra doesn't come from any innate rage but from some rather effortless and brief cajoling on Electra's part.  I would have liked for once to see a larger-than-life, dominant, enraged Orestes taking revenge and his birthright.  Yet since this is Clytemnestra's story, she gets the strongest emotions.

For a novel entitled House of Names, there are relatively few names in the text.  Toibin names his main characters, but you have to know the story to know that the palace is in a place called Mycenae, or that "the war" is the Trojan War.  We're not told where the old woman's house is, but from the geographical clues I would guess somewhere around the Isthmus of Corinth.  The gods remain distant, nameless, invoked by some but not entirely believed in.  It's a mythic world the characters inhabit, somewhere just outside time and place, and I wish there had been more.

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