Reviewing a production of any of the better-known Greek tragedies, one thing you don’t have to worry about is giving away the plot. Everyone knows what happens to Antigone, Oedipus, Medea and Agamemnon. What’s up for discussion is tone, setting and theatrical realisation. But reading Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, a novel that unravels the bitter cycle of vengeance that destroys the Atreides dynasty, I had the unsettling experience – even up to the last few pages – of not being sure how it would all end. In Tóibín’s story, the emphasis is not on the big dramas, although in fact (no spoiler here) all the major events do take place: Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia as a way of getting the gods behind him in his battle against the Trojans; his wife, Clytemnestra, takes murderous revenge on him when he returns triumphant from Troy; her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, exact retribution in turn. Tóibín is not so much interested in the motives behind this series of executions and reprisals as in the way each of the participants explains their actions to themselves. What becomes clear is how little any of them understand their part in the story. Everyone is in the dark.
This is a novel about the way the members of a family keep secrets from one another, tell lies and make mistakes. Agamemnon tricks Clytemnestra into bringing Iphigenia to Aulis, where his ships are becalmed, on the pretext of betrothing her to Achilles. Instead, he has her throat cut and her mouth stuffed to prevent her cursing him as she dies. It is Clytemnestra who tells this part of the story and in her rage against her husband there is no evading the horror of this first violation. She has all our sympathy as she plots Agamemnon’s murder in retaliation, but – and she acknowledges this as ‘my first mistake’ – she fails to gain the sympathy of her daughter Electra. She does not explain herself: ‘I left the others to tell her the story of her sister’s death. I moved like a hungry ghost through the rooms of the palace away from her, away from her voice, a voice that would come to follow me more than any other voice.’
Tóibín has long been interested in writing about characters who don’t talk much, people who withhold information, including from their own inner selves. The elderly judge in The Heather Blazing, Henry James in The Master and the series of women in his recent fiction (Eilis Lacey’s mother in Brooklyn, Nora Webster, even Mary the mother of God in The Testament of Mary): all of them believe the risk of keeping secrets is outweighed by the cost of speaking. They try to protect themselves from vulnerability by staying silent. In House of Names, Clytemnestra learns early on that speaking out is no use. All she has on her side are prayers and curses, but the gods pay no heed to her and she turns to human-scale plotting instead. The voices that swirl through this novel are whispers and undertones, murmurs behind palace doors, rumours carried by servants, nods, winks and hand gestures. This is a world in which power is synonymous with those who police the right to speak openly, in edicts and injunctions; in such a world, the keeping of secrets is a weapon.
The trouble, as both Clytemnestra and Electra discover, is knowing whom to trust. Mother and daughter are enemies who have to sit down at table with one another. They are imprisoned together in the echo chamber of the palace and they prove to be equally at the mercy of the men they need to help them get things done. Both of them tell their stories in the first person, in voices that Tóibín brilliantly manipulates to suggest just how little, rather than how much, they are in control. The story of the third member of the family, the young Orestes (a mere boy at the time of Iphigenia’s murder), is narrated in the third person. Tóibín imagines for him kidnapping and brutal imprisonment, followed by escape and a number of years living the kind of agricultural peasant existence that is the stuff of folk tales, with an old woman in a cottage perched on the edge of the land. It is an extraordinarily sympathetic and intimate portrait of a young mind, with very limited resources, attempting to make sense of his world.
When Orestes returns to the palace, he arrives as an innocent, a figure from an older and simpler way of life. The intricate plot leads us to a place where we watch that trusting innocence betrayed, and the surprise is that it comes as a surprise. After all, the reader knows when they start the novel that no one is going to escape. But the trick Tóibín pulls off here is to locate the source of the tragedy not in fate, or destiny, or the abuse of power, but in the unpredictable, messy, everyday struggles of desperate and lonely people. All the characters in this story feel abandoned and they look back nostalgically to a time when their worlds were simpler and safer.
Tóibín’s stories habitually explore cultures on the cusp of change, such as, in the Enniscorthy novels, a small town in Ireland under pressure from metropolitan modernity. Here, the declining force of a religious world-view (another parallel with Ireland) shadows the fragmentation of the house of Atreus. Clytemnestra cannot forgive the gods for turning their backs on her daughter and strikes out on her own, but Electra looks back wistfully to a time when the gods held sway. As she tells Orestes, ‘Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.’ Electra’s mistake is to believe that anything would have been different for her sister, her mother or herself under the old regime. Clytemnestra, whose unquiet spirit prowls the corridors of the palace, has already learned the opposite lesson: that women are as helpless in the new world as in the old.