Sunday, July 22, 2018

Colm Tóibín - House Of Names (Viking, 2017) ****½

Irish author Colm Tóibín lives in a class of his own. With "Brooklyn", "Nora Webster" and "The Testament of Mary", he tells stories from a strong female perspective, in a velvety style and compassionate tone. His characters are subtle, nuanced, and real in the depth of their emotions and their relationship to other people. In those novels, there is no real evil, no real malevolence, yet he manages to create tension in his narrative, leaving the reader no choice but to keep reading.

In "House of Names", he brings us back to ancient times, to the legend of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. After Agamemnon has his daugher Iphigenia killed as a sacrifice to the gods in order to obtain military victory, their house is doomed. Clytemnestra seeks revenge, and allies herself with Agamemnon's enemy.

Tóibín does not tell us the story as we know it from the ancient Greek authors Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Homer, but he uses it as a springboard to tell his own story about love, loneliness and betrayal. As in his other novels, the main characters are only minor figures in a much broader context, that remains vague and uncertain. The ongoing wars are never truly explained, and neither are their causes clear. The characters move around each other, with different perspectives on good and bad, each caught in a web they never created, yet which they made more complex by their actions. And then at an even deeper level, the characters are prisoners of their own feelings, their own uncertainties and unspoken fears.

Tóibín's style is as usually exquisite. It is rhythmic, well-paced and lyrical.

One example to illustrate:

"An image came to him then of his mother and Aegisthus. He was not sure when it was, but it must have been the morning, a morning when he had come to the room earlier than usual, and his nurse at the doorway had pulled him back but not before he had caught a glimpse of his mother and Aegisthus, and saw them naked and making sounds like animals. The image stayed with him now, became as solid in his mind as the image of his father's face as it brightened when he returned, and the memory of his father's voice and the cheering all around, and the smell of horses and men's sweat and the sense of happiness he felt that his father was home".

... and appreciate how the entire tragedy is captured in young Orestes' mind: the conflicting feelings of betrayal and happiness, the reference to animals and horses in the shifting memories and feelings.

In "House Of Names", Colm Tóibín brings humanity in a Greek tragedy, not only by giving his characters a voice with today's sensitivities and psychological complexity, but also by making humans no longer the puppets of the gods, but the victims of their own doings.

Don't miss it!

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