House of Names
By Colm Tόibίn
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.