Greeks bearing grudges come to blistering life in ‘House of Names’

For his latest novel, Colm Tóibín looks to ancient Greece.

The author of “The Master” (about Henry James) and “The Testament of Mary” (in the years after her son’s crucifixion), Tóibín once again reimagines voices from history.

“House of Names” is a retelling of the bloody, vengeance-fueled story of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon in the style of a modern novel. Tóibín draws heavily on the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, even adapting some of the dialogue from “Iphigenia at Aulis.”

The major plot points of the story are familiar. King Agamemnon tricks his wife, Clytemnestra, into bringing their daughter to be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis in exchange for favorable winds so his troops can set sail for Troy.

When her husband returns from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra murders him and his concubine in retaliation. Their son Orestes, supported by his sister Electra, then commits matricide as payback for his father’s death. Revenge begets revenge in this ancient tragedy.

What is unfamiliar, however, are the close, intimate depictions of these characters.

The novel alternates among sections narrated by Clytemnestra, Electra and a third person perspective that focuses on Orestes.

The most powerful segments belong to Clytemnestra. Her wrath and passion set the tone of the story.

“We are all hungry now. Food merely whets our appetite, it sharpens our teeth; meat makes us ravenous for more meat, as death is ravenous for more death. Murder makes us ravenous, fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction.”

The bloodlust is palpable throughout “House of Names,” and the body count is high. The murder of Agamemnon, an event that takes place offstage in the Greek plays, happens in scene, narrated in chilling detail by Clytemnestra.

“A knife piercing the soft flesh under the ear, with intimacy and precision, and then moving across the throat as soundlessly as the sun moves across the sky … and then his dark blood flowing with the same inevitable hush as dark night falls on familiar things.”

Yet it is impossible to avoid siding with Clytemnestra as she convincingly makes her case as a mother seeking justice for her daughter’s brutal death.

However, she garners no sympathy from her surviving daughter, who views her as “a woman filled with a scheming hunger for murder.” Electra in turn begins to plot her own revenge against her mother and Aegisthus, her lover and accomplice.

All this unbridled rage is tempered by sections that detail Orestes’ years in hiding at the end of the world in an elderly woman’s cottage. Tóibín is at his most inventive here, and the plot veers sharply from canon.

One of the most surprising and successful changes made in this retelling is the absence of the Greek pantheon of gods. Though the story is filled with prophesies and ghosts that haunt the corridors of the palace in Argos, “the time of the gods has passed.” This creative choice allows Tóibín to focus on the relationships within a single family.

There is little attention paid to scenic details that would create an “authentic” portrait of ancient Greece. Instead, Tóibín focuses his energy on conveying the characters’ emotions with blistering — and believable — intensity.

Cycles of revenge and love inevitably destroy the family. Orestes becomes a man of action who succumbs to the will of others, like his father, while Electra winds up a cold-blooded, cunning manipulator, like Clytemnestra.

It is no easy feat, but this fascinating and unique work demands that we see these characters afresh as real people, over two and a half millennia later.

Erin Saxon is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City's creative writing MFA program.

“House of Names” by Colm Tóibín (288 pages; Scribner; $26)