Colm Tóibín builds new stories onto a mythic ‘House of Names’

Irish novelist continues in the ancient storytelling tradition by reinterpreting the stories of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes.

“House of Names”

by Colm Tóibín

Scribner, $26, 288 pages.

Having reinterpreted Christian scripture in his iconoclastic 2013 novel “The Testament of Mary,” celebrated Irish novelist Colm Tóibín now offers a brilliant and challenging reinvention of the Greek myths of the bloody House of Atreus, or as Tóibín terms it, the House of Names.

To appease the gods and raise a wind to blow his foundering fleet to Troy, Greek general Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia, dooming himself thereby to be murdered upon his triumphal homecoming by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus.

These are destined in turn to fall by the hand of her son Orestes, urged on by his sister Electra, concluding a cycle of grisly retribution reaching back through generations of rape, murder and even cannibalism in this most dysfunctional of families.

Ancient Greeks wouldn’t have viewed the preceding as “spoilers,” being as familiar with that outline as we are with the story of Jesus, Hamlet or Batman. They would however have expected a poet to give an original spin to those materials, as witnessed by profound differences between Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” Sophocles’ “Electra” and Euripides’ “Electra and Iphigenia at Aulis,” staged over a 50-year span in fifth-century Athens.

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Each generation created its own version of the story, and Tóibín fulfills this ancient expectation by both drawing on and departing from these varied classical sources, inventing fresh episodes that invite new questions.

The novel begins traditionally enough with the ravishing, incantatory testimony of Clytemnestra. Living “alone in the shivering solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed,” Clytemnestra commands the first 70 pages with…

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