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House of Names: A Novel Hardcover – May 9, 2017
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* Named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, St. Louis Dispatch
From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children.
“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.
Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.
In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.
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"Clytemnsestra, narrating in the first person, is a captivating and terrifying figure, heartbroken and ruthless in her lust for power... Tóibín captures the way that corruption breeds resentment and how resentment almost unstoppably breeds violence. The original myths established these characters as the gods' playthings, but Tóibín reframes this version in a 'time when the gods are fading' the besster to lay the blame for our human failures plainly on ourselves." ― Kirkus Reviews
“A taut retelling of a foundational Western story…this extraordinary book reads like a pristine translation rather than a retelling, conveying both confounded strangeness and timeless truths about love’s sometimes terrible and always exhilarating energies.” ― Library Journal, Starred Review
"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.”
― Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
"Written with the ‘knowledge that the time of the gods has passed,’ Colm Toibin’s take on the classic myth of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in House of Names evokes a husband’s vanity and a wife’s rage, casting the fragility of our closest bonds in fresh light.” ― Vogue
“A creative reanimation of these indelible characters who are still breathing down our necks across the millennia… [Tóibín] 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.” -- Ron Charles ― The Washington Post
“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.” -- Claude Peck ― The Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[An] extraordinary new novel… 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… you can see at once the marvelous writer Tóibín is, and how he works best under a set of self-imposed restrictions… -- John Freeman ― The Boston Globe
“Mr. Tóibín is exemplary of modern methods, a careful, Jamesian portraitist of exquisite finesse and understatement… as finely written as any of his books." -- Sam Sacks ― The Wall Street Journal
“Simply and inexorably, Tóibín spins the deadly tale we remember so well from our schooldays…It is Tóibín’s unembellished prose that grips us, pulling us anew into an old story, one whose ending we know yet cannot put down. We are also struck by the emotional distance he gives his characters, one from the other, except in rare instances – a family dynamic bred of damage… riveting and relevant and a fine addition to the growing canon of works by Colm Tóibín.” -- Karen Brady ― The Buffalo News
“The misadventures of Agamemnon and his family were repeatedly retold in Greek mythology…In his new novel, House of Names, Colm Toibin explores part of this story, from the murder of Iphigenia to the murder of Clytemnestra, making it strike a new chord, far more impressive than the pious respect or worthy aura of ‘classicism’ that often surrounds it. Part of Toibin’s success comes down to the power of his writing: an almost unfaultable combination of artful restraint and wonderfully observed detail….[this] 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…he is also very good on exploiting the puzzling gaps in the ancient narrative, especially where Orestes is concerned…But Toibin has bigger themes in mind, too, particularly the cycle of violence that seems to trap the family of Agamemnon.” -- Mary Beard ― The New York Times Book Review
“A modernized masterpiece…an excellent read that will appeal to all audiences and make real the Greek tragedy readers only thought they understood.” ― The Deseret News
“Exquisite…[Toibin] makes modern psychological drama out of the Greek mythological cycles of violence that destroyed Clytemnestra and her family, wresting human motives out of stories that might otherwise feel alien to our culture.” -- Boris Kachka ― New York Magazine
“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.” -- Heller McAlpin ― NPR.org
“[A] psychologically probing and intimate retelling of the Greek tragedy…Toibin’s prose is stark and mesmerizingly readable. It reveals the horrors but doesn’t sensationalize them — which makes them even more horrific, as he meticulously reproduces the inexorable and inevitabilities of Greek tragedy. The calm ruthlessness of the tale adds to its terrors…[a] magnificent novel.” -- Sam Coale ― The Providence Journal
"A devastatingly human story...savage, sordid and hauntingly believable." -- Kate Clanchy ― The Guardian
"A giant amongst storytellers, Toibin has thrown down the gauntlet with his latest novel . . . And it is a masterpiece." -- Edith Hall ― Daily Telegraph
"A Greek House of Cards... Just like Heaney at the end of his Mycenae lookout, Toibin's novel augurs an era of renewal that comes directly from the cessation of hostilities." -- Fiona Macintosh ― Irish Times
"Tóibín's retelling is governed by compassion and responsibility, and focuses on the horrors that led Clytemnestra to her terrible vengeance. Her sympathetic first-person narrative makes even murder, for a moment, seem reasonable (...) Tóibín's prose is precise and unadorned, the novel's moments of violence told with brutal simplicity. But its greatest achievement is as a page-turner. In a tale that has ended the same way for thousands of years, Tóibín makes us hope for a different outcome." -- James Reith ― The Economist
"In a novel describing one of the Western world's oldest legends, in which the gods are conspicuous by their absence, Tóibín achieves a paradoxical richness of characterisation and a humanisation of the mythological, marking House Of Names as the superbly realised work of an author at the top of his game." ― Daily Express
"Colm Tóibín turns Greek Myths into flesh and blood..The writing is characteristically elegant, spare and subtle. ..The scenes between Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus darkly sexy." ― The Times
"A haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose..." -- Lucy Hughes-Hallett ― The New Statesman
"Mesmerizing... [House of Names] balances the restraint of neoclassical art with the frenzy of a Pollock painting."
― O, The Oprah Magazine
"A psychological and political thriller following the sacrifice of Iphigenia...told with remarkable literary restraint…Tóibín has poured old wine into an exquisite new bottle, using invisible artistry to make it seem as if there is nothing to it." ― The Christian Science Monitor
"A well-wrought urn of a novel, with Tóibín commanding form, tone and structure on every page." -- Anthony Domestico ― San Francisco Chronicle
"A brilliant and challenging reinvention of the Greek myths of the bloody House of Atreus, or as Tóibín terms it, the House of Names... Euripides would approve." -- David Wright ― The Seattle Times
"Vengeance, betrayal and elemental passion never go out of style." -- Kathleen Rooney ― The Chicago Tribune
"Mr. Tóibín echoes many writers, from Euripides to Eugene O’Neill, on the twisted path to this garden. Echoes that include the tit-for-tat murders in 20th-century Ireland, which underscore the insistence of antiquity." -- Peter Stoddard ― Wall Street Journal
About the Author
- Publisher : Scribner; 1st Edition (May 9, 2017)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1501140213
- ISBN-13 : 978-1501140211
- Item Weight : 13.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1 x 8.38 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #560,958 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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To the Greeks, Clytemnestra was a horror. Women murdering husbands for a wrongdoing was bad for the business of patriarchy--a system to which they were firmly attached. To modern sensibilities, Clytemnestra is far more sympathetic. Her hatred understandable. Her lust for power hardly abhorrent. Toibin wisely steers clear of the past and present "role of women" angle and focuses upon the personal. By simply narrating her calculated hatred Clytemnestra becomes even more terrifying--magnificently horrific. Killing Agamemnon is the closest she will ever feel to happiness. The counterpoint to Clytemnestra is daughter Electra whose reaction was to blame the mother who failed to prevent the killing of a beloved sister. Hers is a role that has given great comfort to misogyny through the ages.
The one failing of Toibin's retelling is he doesn't seem to know what to do with Orestes whose appearance in several chapters leaves more questions than answers. In the Oresteia, Aeschylus's telling of events, Orestes reestablishes order (i.e., male authority) but a resolve to kill one's own mother is hardly an endearing trait. He's a conundrum for the modern reader: damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Complicating things further, Toibin depicts a loving childhood relationship between the two and a young boy present at his sister's murder. The modern reader expects more sympathy from him or at least less judgment. It's all very uncathartic and in that regard very un-Greek, a culture that firmly believed catharsis essential to any successful drama. That lack of resolution was annoying for me but others may not care.
Toibin's prose is always splendid. Sometimes dazzling. Whether or not you care about myth and legend, if you enjoy beautiful prose then House of Names will be a pleasure.
Orestes grows into a man of promise with the potential of being a better warrior and a better king than his father, yet, regardless of what he does, he can never quite fill the place that was meant to be his. Toibin leaves the reason for his failure somewhat vague. Is it because he succumbs to the control of his vengeful sister, Elektra? Or because he loses the respect of Leander, his friend and lover? Perhaps he has just been away too long, or perhaps he and his family are cursed?
Initially I wondered why Toibin didn't include the points of view of Aegisthes or Agamemnon. I can't be sure, but I think it may be because he wanted to focus on blood--blood spilled and blood as one's genetic inheritance, and the way that blood influences a family and the events surrounding it for generations. To do that, the focus clearly had to remain on Clytemnestra--herself the result of a violent rape--and her offspring.
My only complaint is that House of Names has a rather abrupt, somewhat unfathomable conclusion that left me unsatisfied. I feel like I need to go back and reread the last section, since I don't quite know what Toibin was attempting to do here. But all in all, it was a good read (especially on the heels of some really bad ones).
So we are in the realm of family tragedy and the endemic history of violence and feuds being passed down the generations. Horrific murders done for the vengeance of the imaginary gods or sometimes just for payback.
Here the tale ends with Orestes - son and youngest child of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Colm Toibn has Orestes paired with a Lysander as the youthful lover and, in this theme in this novel, there is a sense of rapprochement - an ending of the continuing vengeance.
Top reviews from other countries
When the gods don't matter any more, or don't care, Tóibín knows that new stories must be built up on the backs of the old, and they must include manumission, replanting and repopulation; he knows too that the old Aeschylean myths won't sustain such sophisticated narratives and new names will have to fill the houses. The last gasp of influence by the gods - they are never named - on human affairs is in the brutal sacrifice of Iphigenia at the start, leading to the chain of revenge murders, as Aeschylus records, but other stories are being fledged too. The old woman who adopts Orestes and Leander begins to tell tales 'about ships and men, and a woman and the waves, but she could not continue. At other times, she listed names, but they seemed to have no connection with anything.' This critical moment in the book lifts the narrative into a kind of dream-space, a myth-incubator, where new storylines about tragic heroes and heroines are crying out to be born. Orestes' song - he can't recall the words - over her grave as they are burying her is the beginning of a new world order, as yet unrecorded and unfabled.
Like Clytemnestra's shadow world, relationships remain ambiguous, fluid. Comfort, when it cannot be found in the curious wraithlike silence that wraps itself over the land, is there in the 'soft eroding edges' of Agamemnon's palace, where death must never be named. Tóibín is very good on male intimacy, the power and the fragility of male bonding in both the bedroom and the battlefield. Human tenderness mixes with the hideous turmoil of war and murder as the storyline tries to connect with new realities in a barren, godless world. Told with great simplicity, it is also profoundly evocative of the flimsy threads that make the history of a nation have meaning in a world where names are so hard to find.
I never read a book backwards or look at the last page. I should have done. My book finishes on page 248 with a comma being the last thing on the page. What book ends with a comma mid sentence?
I would like a refund or a replacement because this book was marketed as NEW and I paid £6.99 for it on 7th September.
The return date has passed, so not sure what this company will do to sort this mess out.
At the moment I am left frustrated with a book that is not complete and I will not be able to comment on the book at my bookclub next week.
The lack of a 5th star is because the cover of the book was damaged (cracked) when I opened the package.
Otherwise, enjoyable read and prompt delivery