House of Names is a perfect choice for a fall book club discussion.
And, that’s in part due to the fact that it’s less than perfect. Colm Toibin, one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers, has reimagined the ancient Greek myth of Agememnon and Clytemnestra.
If you haven’t come across famous versions of this story by Aeschylus or Euripides, you’ll no doubt be familiar with it from Homer — Agememnon is the Greek king who sails to Troy to recover the famously beautiful Helen.
The opening scenes of Toibin’s retelling are fantastic. Agememnon sends a message to his wife requesting her to bring his daughter Iphegenia to him on the battlefield. Clytemnestra is overjoyed. After all, Agememnon has told her he wants his daughter to be married to the great Achilles.
After a long journey to the battlefields, Clytemnestra learns the truth: Agememnon has tricked her. He doesn’t want to marry off his daughter, he plans to sacrifice her to appease the gods, and allow him to sail to Troy. Clytemnestra is enraged.
It’s difficult to reach back across the ages and understand people’s desires and motives. I think trying to comprehend this violent culture is what drives Toibin to write this book. By getting inside the heads and hearts of these characters, he speculates as to how a society could be set up so that killing and murder make sense.
Toibin starts strong, but by the mid-section of the tale, when he begins to create entirely new histories for characters such as Orestes, the motives for his characters become less believable. This is a small complaint, however.
House of Names is a great tale by one of the best writers in the English language. I might have expected it to be the best book of 2017, but with characters such as Electra less compelling than they could have been, it’s not quite there. That is, it’s not perfect. But, close enough to keep me reading.
On another note, a reader of this column, Editha Flossmann has just released a memoir called Uncharted Waters: The Life and Loves of Emily Fahrmann, an Austrian Landlady’s Daughter. It’s a thorough and cathartic narrative. For those interested, it can be purchased on amazon.ca.
Heather Allen is an avid reader and book reviewer for the Penticton Western News.