House of Names by Colm Tóibín – brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy

The writer takes us behind the scenes of The Oresteia in ‘a celebration of what novels can do’

When Peter Hall staged Aeschylus’s The Oresteia at the National in 1981, his all-male cast wore long, ghoulish masks for the nearly six-hour duration of the trilogy. The masks served partly to illustrate the distance between these ancient figures and their modern spectators, some two-and-a-half millennia later. They also, though, made the point that Aeschylus’s characters were not characters at all, at least as we might understand the term. They were elemental figures in a morality play about the progress of a society from chaos into civilisation, a play that sought to establish new rules about the relationship between gods and men.

House of Names, Colm Tóibín’s ninth novel, is ostensibly a retelling of The Oresteia through the voices of its principal characters – Clytemnestra and her children, Orestes and Electra. Clytemnestra’s first-person narrative takes up the initial third of the book, recapitulating the dreadful events at Aulis and then moving to the palace at Argos. The voice is hard, sure and compelling as Clytemnestra plots with her lover, Aegisthus, to murder the returning Agamemnon. The novel then moves to a third-person record of Orestes’s wandering and return, passages which are redolent of Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles in their fast-paced action and simmering homoeroticism. The final sections of the book weave between the voices of Electra, Orestes and (briefly) Clytemnestra as the son returns to avenge his father.

I say ostensibly a retelling, because House of Names gives us so much that isn’t in the original trilogy (and excludes so much that is, but more of that later). This is a novel that is a celebration of what novels can do. It gives us interiority, specificity, the in-between stuff that is the fabric of life. We see everything that happens off stage in the plays, and this is what really interests us. It’s not just the violence, which famously takes place out of sight of the audience, but the form of the novel allows Tóibín to delve deeply into the inner lives of his characters, to give shape to their everyday worlds. I don’t mean here to privilege the novel over drama but rather to make a link between the two. Tóibín is like a great actor, taking the framework provided by the events of the play and providing psychology, motivation, nuance, humanity.

As an example, there’s an extraordinary scene early on in the book when Clytemnestra and Iphigenia come to visit Agamemnon in his tent at Aulis. Agamemnon knows that his wife and daughter are now aware of why they have been brought to the camp – in order for Iphigenia to be sacrificed – and he deliberately prolongs his play-fighting with the young Orestes as a way of holding off the moment of recognition. “There was something in the air, or in our expressions, so intense that my husband must have known that when he relaxed and faced us that time would change and never be the same again.” It’s a passage that strikes us as powerfully true to life, eating up the years between the then and the now.

Of course Iphigenia’s sacrifice was carried out in order to appease the jealous Artemis, and yet other than this, the gods are largely absent from House of Names. Here, Tóibín recalls the conceit behind his 2012 novel The Testament of Mary, which imagined the mother of Jesus entirely unwilling to accept her son’s divinity. Stripping Apollo and Athena from The Oresteia gives us a world in which we can no longer look to the gods for explanation and motivation, so we must look inwards. One of the reasons that Clytemnestra is so undone by the murder of Iphigenia is because she knows the emptiness of the gesture: “I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.”

The godless world of House of Names means that the final reckoning provided by The Eumenides, the third part of the trilogy, where the Furies, Apollo and Athena are principal players, is absent from the book. Instead the ending is open, ambiguous, the characters faced with the messy everyday demands of family and government. Orestes, far from the heroic model held out to Telemachus in The Odyssey, is a tentative, cowed figure, marginalised by his sister and his one-time friend, Leander.

Tóibín’s Orestes made me think often of Luke Thompson’s excellent portrayal of the character at the Almeida in 2015, where Orestes was interrogated by a malevolent psychoanalyst and seemed overwhelmed by the horror of his own actions. Unlike that production, though, Tóibín doesn’t seek to update or modernise anything else within the text. Indeed one of the striking things about House of Names is how little anachronism there is, how everything in the novel glows with the special radiance of antiquity. With Natalie Haynes’s superb The Children of Jocasta and Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (a brilliant retelling of Antigone set in contemporary London) also published this year, we have our own trilogy to celebrate.

• House of Names by Colm Tóibín is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy for £11.24 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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