In Colm Tóibín’s extraordinary new novel, The House of Names, it feels as if that night watchman has finally been allowed to speak. Drawing upon Greek tragedy as deftly as he borrowed the story of the Virgin mother in his 2013 Booker Prize finalist novel, The Testament of Mary, Tóibín has found the gaps in the myth, reimagining all as a profoundly gripping and human tale ... Here he has found yet another register, a language which is declarative and figurative at once. It feels entirely believable as of its time. There is no space between things and their representation, and as such there are almost no similes in the book. As a result, the prose creates enormous velocity ... What is truly miraculous, though, is how Tóibín has made us sympathize with people who do terrible, unthinkable things.
This isn’t just a captivating retelling; it’s a creative reanimation of these indelible characters who are still breathing down our necks across the millennia. And far from feeling constrained by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Tóibín ventures into the lacunae of the old legends and pumps blood even into the silent figures of Greek tragedy ... Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender ... Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.
Although a reader may know what’s coming, the novel’s imaginative take on the twisted psychology behind the horrific acts is what keeps it compelling ... The final chapters are among the most mysterious and beautiful Tóibín has written; a high bar. In a sort of prose fugue, Clytemnestra returns from the afterlife cloaked in an amnesiac shadow and searching for Orestes.
...at the beginning of the novel, events hew so closely to the Greek originals that you may wonder why the author has bothered to retell this old tale at all ... But before long a number of additions, omissions, and tweaks to the Greek versions make it clear that Tóibín is just as comfortable playing around with the traditional narrative as Euripides was ... however ambitious its themes and refined its literary allusiveness, House of Names never quite comes to life. Part of the problem is, predictably, technical. The diction, as so often in modern attempts to render ancient voices, wobbles between being strenuously high and, sometimes, jarringly banal. And while Tóibín has evidently immersed himself in the tragic texts, there’s something fuzzy and unpersuasive about the ambience in which his legendary characters operate ... House of Names falls between two horses. On the one hand, the author wants to use myth, with its strong archetypal patterns ('vengeance begets vengeance'), to illustrate his political point; on the other, he wants to demythologize myth, cutting its heroic characters down to modern size, giving them recognizable psychologies and more or less normal motivations. But you can’t have your ambrosia and eat it, too.
A feeling of spectral unreality characterizes House of Names, as if it were all a dark Freudian dream, hazily imagined rather than fully inhabited. Mr. Tóibín has traded out the rage and horror of The Oresteia for ambivalence and disquiet. His adaptation is as finely written as any of his books, but it occupies an artistic nether region, lacking the archetypal power of the ancient dramas and the plausibility of realism.
Part of Toibin’s success comes down to the power of his writing: an almost unfaultable combination of artful restraint and wonderfully observed detail. It is this, for example, that transforms his account of the sacrifice of Iphigenia from what could all too easily have been a ghastly version of operatic bombast into a moving tragedy on a human scale ... Part of it is also to do with the way Toibin engages with the ancient texts that define the story. He is not afraid to deflate some of their grandstand moments.
Rather than turning human-sized stories into myths, Tóibín sets out to humanise the myths of the house of Atreus...all this results in a devastatingly human story … We don’t know this maybe-bronze-age, maybe-Homeric world at all, or how its society is supposed to work, and as Orestes wanders ever more confusingly over it, bumping occasionally into Goya-esque scenes of violence, we begin to wonder if Tóibín does either...There are irrigation schemes and settlements and slaves and guards and infinite supplies of food – where do they all come from, and where do they go? It starts to feel not so much mythic as random, or, worse, a bit CGI, a bit too close to Game of Thrones.
...House of Names is a surprising turn for Tóibín, a violent page-turner about the mother of all dysfunctional families and the insidious ravages of revenge and distrust ... In visceral, accessible language, Tóibín brings us close to the members of the house of Atreus — who, in the absence of gods, bear responsibility for their actions ... Tóibín plays all this with sinister mastery. He channels the female characters directly, while Orestes' point of view is delivered in a tight third person narrative ... House of Names works because of the empathy and depth Tóibín brings to these suffering, tragically fallible characters, all destined to pass on "into the abiding shadows" — yet vividly alive in this gripping novel.
...a brilliant and challenging reinvention ... Each generation created its own version of the story, and Tóibín fulfills this ancient expectation by both drawing on and departing from these varied classical sources, inventing fresh episodes that invite new questions ... Tóibín taps into the main vein of Greek tragedy, providing a stunning and intensely satisfying immersion in bloody vengeance that would do Aeschylus proud.
Tóibín adds a few characters and intrigues, but the result, told with remarkable literary restraint, possesses the authority of an oracle etched into a clay tablet ... Tóibín has poured old wine into an exquisite new bottle, using invisible artistry to make it seem as if there is nothing to it.
Tóibín’s accomplishment here is to render myth plausible while at the same time preserving its high drama ... The selfish side of human nature is a hoary, always fresh theme for fiction, made tangible and graphic in Tóibín’s lush prose.
[The] detachment comes at a price, and though the novel isn't bad — it's really all right — it fails to feel as riveting as its premise suggests, ending up less revelatory and more superfluous. Its short, stating sentences have the effect of summary and synopsis instead of depth or disclosure. Even in the penultimate section — when Toibin lets Clytemnestra narrate as a ghost — the reader is left wanting more ... this book, which seems to want to be ferocious and bracing, feels like a competent arm's-length recapitulation. If you don't know or like mythology and the classics, then you might do better to go straight to those, and if you do know and like them, then you might very well end up wishing you were just rereading them directly in all their original glory without the interruptive layer of Toibin's earnest and effortful lyrical interpolation.
This exquisite novelistic control shouldn’t surprise. As readers of Brooklyn and Nora Webster can attest, Tóibín has done this before. But it’s striking given the new work’s decidedly messy, violent plot ... despite the obvious craft, House of Names drains the original tragedy of much that makes it so strangely powerful. Rereading Aeschylus’ Oresteia, I was struck anew by just how unlike us the Greeks were. Their thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are their ways our ways. In Tóibín’s version, we lose the chorus, which means we lose the Greek sense that the self might be as much communal as it is singular. We also lose the sense of tragic inevitably, of a largely deterministic cosmos in which, when one domino goes down, the others must as well. For Tóibín, it’s individual subjectivity and agency all the way down.
Tóibín is of course free to re-create ancient figures in our own image. Who would want to say such an artistic appropriation, especially one done so well, is off limits? So let’s instead acknowledge Tóibín’s brilliant version of this story — and then go back to the weird brilliance of the original.
Tóibín refreshes a classic in part by imagining Orestes’s backstory with his friend Leander in a key role and in part by depicting in stark prose vibrant settings, such as palace hallways where shadowy figures conspire. The result is a dramatic, intimate chronicle of a family implosion set in unsettling times as gods withdraw from human affairs. Far from the Brooklyn or Ireland of his recent bestsellers, Tóibín explores universal themes of failure, loss, loneliness, and repression.
The bloodlust is palpable throughout House of Names, and the body count is high ... All this unbridled rage is tempered by sections that detail Orestes’ years in hiding at the end of the world in an elderly woman’s cottage. Tóibín is at his most inventive here, and the plot veers sharply from canon. One of the most surprising and successful changes made in this retelling is the absence of the Greek pantheon of gods ... It is no easy feat, but this fascinating and unique work demands that we see these characters afresh as real people, over two and a half millennia later.
The House of Atreus, in his telling, is one of the shadowy spaces filled with whispers and ghosts and troubling unvoiced memories that his imagination has always loved. It also has actual subterranean dungeons, and the hinterlands around it shimmer with the same kind of threat as a landscape in a spaghetti western … Orestes’s wanderings, punctuated by matter-of-fact killings, have considerable Game of Thrones appeal and play some of the same games with the audience’s sympathies. But instead of cheap narrative tricks and resolutions we’re left with images of desolation and thwarted love and the patriarchal family as an unsettled outgrowth of the ancient state.
...the novel’s intensity—and to a large degree, its success—depends on who’s doing the talking. Clytemnestra, narrating in the first person, is a captivating and terrifying figure, heartbroken and ruthless in her lust for power. But Orestes’ portion of the tale, narrated in the third person, runs at a low boil of mustier fable-speak despite being packed with themes of protection, vengeance, and self-defense. That makes the novel feel tonally disjointed, but throughout, Tóibín captures the way that corruption breeds resentment and how resentment almost unstoppably breeds violence ... This reboot of an ancient story is alternately fiery and plodding, but Tóibín plainly grasps the reasons for its timelessness.