Book Review: “House of Names” by Colm Toibin

House of Names

By Colm Tόibίn

house of names

I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley and Viking.

First things first: how do you say his name? I looked it up: CULL-um Toe-BEAN.

Tόibίn has been around for a good while and written several notable titles, including Man Booker Shortlisted titles and a film adaptation of Brooklyn in 2015. But I have yet to sample his work. Thankfully, I have now broken that trend, with his newest release: House of Names.

King Agamemnon makes a horrific choice: the day she was to be married, Agamemnon has his daughter sacrificed. It is brutal and shocking. It is the will of the Gods. It is only this act that will bring him favour in the Trojan War. Or so he believes. This brutal act leaves a legacy of grief and treachery for his wife, Clytemnestra and they’re surviving children, Orestes and Electra.

As a student and lover of the classics, I found it fascinating. House of Names is based on Greek myths that I am not particularly familiar with, so I don’t know how true it is to historical sources, but given Tόibίn’s calibre, I think we can safely assume that a fair amount of research went into it. Something I really appreciated and enjoyed while reading this novel, was the considered effort to create an ancient – and therefore timeless – narrative. The writing style reminded me of that which we find in existing ancient texts, such as Livy.

It is a style that shuns embellishment and uses very little description. Yes, landscapes have their dimensions and facets – be they open fields or cold stone prison cells. And yes, characters have their thoughts and actions – be they private and murderous or steadfast and brave. But Tόibίn finds more than that unnecessary. The result is an action driven narrative, governed by its restrained descriptive style. My imagination thrived on this starvation of description, and when I think back to some of the action scenes in the book, vivid images instantly appear inside my mind.

While this is a story driven by soul-consuming emotion, Tόibίn’s decision to heavily restrain his character’s voices compresses and represses these violent emotions, emulating the experience of his characters. Unfortunately, while I found the style overall to be effective, it was the restraint that prevented me from truly connecting with the characters. I felt removed from them. Therefore, even when a first person narrative was being used, I could only observe and not empathise with them.

Perhaps that was intentional on the part of Tόibίn; a decision made as part of his endeavour to recall this ancient myth of murder, betrayal and power.


Book Title: House of Names

Author: Colm Toibin

ISBN: 9780241257685 (HB)

Buy it here.


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Re“Vamp”ing The Classics: Book Vs. Screen

For anyone who missed it being published on Clamour’s website, here’s the article again (Click here to view on Clamour):

 

Are we too precious about the classics, or is the literary canon being sullied by modern adaptation and blasphemous reinvention?

Is this a question of artistic integrity or snobbery? Or is it nothing so high-flown, and merely a signal for change in social approaches to literature and the arts in general? In an age where the big screen is constantly beating books in the popularity contest, the relationship between these two art forms is changing. Slap a new cover on an old book, with the familiar faces of a recent screen adaptation, and that book will fly off the shelves that before had only been gathering dust.

Two recent examples that have undergone a screen ‘revamp’ are “War & Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, in the much acclaimed BBC adaptation in January of this year, and the Jane Austen inspired “Pride & Prejudice and Zombies” by Seth Grahame-Smith, released as a feature film in February.

book v screen V1 small

Reworking literature is not a new idea. Satire has always existed, ever since there were people making art, from Ancient Greece to the present day. Satire, parody, homage and pastiche – the oldest forms of criticism or veneration. What, then, makes these two examples of particular interest? What new trend are they evidencing? Continue reading