Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: 'House of Names' by Colm Tóibín

I love Greek myths and legends so much. They were some of the first stories that ignited my passion for reading and literature and mythology, and they have been a constant companion. I know them in a way you know your childhood home. You can’t necessarily always picture it clearly, but if you close your eyes you always find your way around, remember which step creaks and where the cookies are hidden. As such, adaptations of them strike a double chord with me. They both excite me and worry me, because what are they going to do with my stories? I have had both good and bad experiences with these adaptations, and somehow House of Names falls in between. Thanks to Viking and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 18/05/2017
Publisher: Viking; Penguin Books
'They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.' 
On the day of his daughter's wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family - mother, brother, sister - on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace's dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family's game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.
House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.
Greek mythology is a curious beast. On the one hand it pervades Western culture to the extent that everyone will know at least one tale. Our planets are named after the Greek Gods’ Latinized counterparts and Homer is a staple of any literature course. On the other hand, the finer intricacies of it, the way in which the mythology builds on each other, the way our view of it was shaped by those who came after, that makes Greek mythology a tricky thing to truly grasp. Adaptations, then, of these myths and legends find themselves in a precarious position. Some novels go completely the wrong way and try to make Greek mythology something it isn’t, while others try to dig deeper into what the extant tales try to tell us. The Greek myths are as tragic and dramatic as they come, full of careless gods and tortured humans, but they are also full of beautiful images and humanity.

Something about House of Names left me wanting. On the surface there truly is nothing to complain about when it comes to Tóibín’s novel. He treats his characters with respect, he paints beautiful images with his words and has a number of high-stakes moments in his plot. And yet I never truly got involved with it all. Perhaps my standards were too high. When I visited Greece as a child I lived and breathed these stories, knew them inside out and was completely enraptured by them. Their drama, their language, their scope and depth; in comparison to it House of Names fell flat for me. A novel that did incredibly well at capturing the essence of Greek mythology was The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, in which she made the character of Penelope her own while also sinking into the richness that the source material offered her. I liked the chapters around Clytemnestra and Electra, mainly because, like Penelope and Helen, they are sidelined in the originals, yet even those never go me truly got me excited. Also, strangely, in my edition of the book, their chapters are written from the first person, whereas Orestes’ chapters are third person, removing the reader even further from his character.

Tóibín writes very well. He sets scenes up perfectly, captures emotions and mindsets very well and at the end of the book you want more. I personally wanted more because I knew were the story was going and because I was curious how Tóibín would handle it. But I’ve also seen other reviewers saying they wanted more. And yet it is told in a way I can only call dispassionate. The House of Atreus is a doomed house, a cursed house, full of murder, betrayal and vengeance, yet Tóibín brings to it the same passion you would to a shopping list. My problem with House of Names, I think, lies with that he tries to justify or moralize why what happens had to happen. Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigenia because he was under pressure from his army. As an outraged mother and sidelined queen, revenge seems a natural option for Clytemnestra. As the only son, Orestes has to avenge his father, even if he is perhaps not quite convinced of it himself. The Greek stories allow for destiny, they deal in absolutes and don’t require moralizing because we recognize that push from destiny. Greek tragedy didn’t really deal with the psychology behind their characters, yet Aeschylus and the others filled their characters with life. By moralizing and attempting to explain, much of the magic is lost and in the end none of the characters are truly likeable. This was my first Tóibín read, and although House of Names convinced me he is a good writer, I don’t know if I’ll want to pick up another one of his books anytime soon.

I give this book…
 
3 Universes!


Although I enjoyed House of Names, it didn’t blow me away or engrossed me as much as I had hoped. The characterization was there, but left me wanting for something deeper, something more true to the source. House of Names would make for an easy introduction to adaptations of Greek mythology, without requiring a massive knowledge of said mythology.

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