on ‘House of Names’ By Colm Tóibín

29344653Clair Wills at Literary Review:

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.

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