House of Names

A Novel

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About The Book

* A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of the Year
* 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.

Excerpt

House of Names Clytemnestra

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for House of Names includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children—Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes. Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, giving these extraordinary characters new life. As you see Iphigenia’s sacrifice through Clytemnestra’s eyes, you understand her thirst for revenge on the husband who dared sacrifice their daughter. When Orestes is kidnapped and separated from his family, you feel his bewilderment and searching, his lost sense of self. As Electra adjusts to life in the palace with her mother and her mother’s lover Aegisthus in charge, you calculate a path forward with her. Ancient Greece rises from the pages of Houses of Names, full of betrayals, violence, lust, schemes, treachery and—perhaps above all—the restless spirits of the past.

A Note from the Author

When I had finished my novel Nora Webster, which followed Brooklyn, I knew that I would not write about Enniscorthy again for a while. I felt as though I had dreamed the town where I grew up out of my system.

One day, a friend suggested I should look at the story of Clytemnestra, the figure in Greek theatre, who murdered her husband, Agamemnon, and was in turn murdered by her son, Orestes, egged on by his sister Electra.

At first I was not sure. But I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy. I saw most of the book happening in a single space, almost like a town, a place full of secrets and whispers and rumors.

Even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family as it tears itself asunder. No matter what happens, I was dealing with family dynamics, something I have been dramatizing in all my books: the same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.

Only this time it was happening in ancient Greece rather than in the streets of Enniscorthy.

—Colm Tóibín

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. Clytemnestra speaks of “a hunger I had come to know too and had come to appreciate” (page 3) in the opening pages. What does this hunger signify? Why do death and appetite come together in these early scenes, particularly for Clytemnestra?

2. Agamemnon and his men seem to believe in the gods so much that they will sacrifice Iphigenia unquestioningly, while this act cements for Clytemnestra “that I did not believe at all in the power of the gods” (page 32). Do you think she is the only one with doubts?

3. Why does Clytemnestra brush Electra aside after Iphigenia’s death? Could the consequences of Clytemnestra’s “first mistake” (page 40) with Electra have been avoided?

4. Was Clytemnestra wise to trust in Aegisthus? What are his true motives? Would you have relied on him in Clytemnestra’s place?

5. As Clytemnestra leads Agamemnon to the bath where she will murder him she feels a “small pang of desire,” “the old ache of tenderness” for him (page 62). Why do these feelings spring up? Why do they not give her second thoughts, instead of strengthening her resolve?

6. After Orestes is taken, Clytemnestra still imagines “exerting sweet control” over Aegisthus and Electra and “the possibility of a bloodless future for us” (page 69). How is she able to be so optimistic at this point?

7. With Leander and the guards, Orestes feels that “if only he could think of one single right question to ask, then he would find out what he needed to know” (page 101). Why is this? How does this feeling characterize Orestes throughout the novel?

8. When Orestes needs to attack one of the men pursuing him, he thinks he “could do anything if he did not worry for a second or even calculate” (pages 124–25). How does this kind of thinking play out in his future actions?

9. Why does Mitros refuse to share with Orestes and Leander what the old woman told him would happen to them in the future (page 138)? How does their time with the old woman, Mitros and the dog shape both Orestes and Leander?

10. Does Electra mourn Iphigenia? Why does Electra so completely spurn Clytemnestra, envisioning her death in the sunken garden with a smile (page 147)?

11. How is the dinner where Electra wears a dress of Iphigenia’s and attempts to catch the eye of Dinos a turning point for her?

12. Why does Electra tell Orestes they live in a “strange time . . . when the gods are fading” (page 206)?

13. When Mitros’ father talks with Orestes about Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Orestes says Clytemnestra “did not kill Iphigenia,” and Mitros says the gods demanded that and continues to lay all blame at Clytemnestra’s feet (page 217–19). Eventually, Orestes is swayed by Mitros’ insistence that Clytemnestra is in control of all and must be punished. How are they able to brush aside Aegisthus’ and even Agamemnon’s actions?

14. As Orestes prepares to kill his mother he envisions “what was coming as something that the gods had ordained and that was fully under their control” (page 234). But who else might be controlling Orestes in this moment?

15. After Clytemnestra’s death, how do Electra and Orestes continue to reflect and be affected by their mother?

16. Names—calling them, invoking them, remembering them—are significant throughout the novel. What power do they hold? Discuss what names mean to the old woman, the elders who lost their sons, Orestes and Leander and Clytemnestra.

17. House of Names is told from Clytemenestra’s, Orestes’ and Electra’s points of view. How do their different perspectives shape the narrative? What might Agamemnon’s account be like?

18. In his note about how he came to write House of Names, Tóibín says that “even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family . . . something I have been dramatizing in all my books: the same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.” Are there insights you draw from this novel akin to those you might draw from a more conventional family story?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Travelling Players is a 1975 Greek film directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos that reinvents Aeschylus’ The Oresteia and traces the history of mid-twentieth century Greece from 1939 to 1952. Watch the film and discuss its parallels with House of Names.

2. Read Eugene O’Neill’s play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra, a retelling of The Oresteia. Contrast Tóibín’s version of the story with Eugene O’Neill’s.

3. Read Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary. How is Mary like Clytemnestra? How are they different? What might have drawn Tóibín to reinterpret these iconic women?

About The Author

© Brigitte Lacombe

Colm Tóibín is the author of nine novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (May 2017)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501140211

Raves and Reviews

"Brilliant...Tóibín's accomplishment here is to render myth plausible while at the same time preserving its high drama... gripping... The selfish side of human nature is... made tangible and graphic in Tóibín's lush prose."

– Booklist, STARRED review

"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

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