Surely the Greek myth of warrior-king Agamemnon and his downfall must be the story of the most dysfunctional family in history. In his most recent novel “House of Names” Tóibín reenacts this dramatic tragedy, but doesn’t focus on the perspective of the great conqueror of Troy who horrifically sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to ensure his victory. Instead he flips between the accounts of Agamemnon’s scheming wife Clytemnestra, imperious daughter Electra and young son Orestes. Moving between their points of view he shows how their downfall is fuelled by their various ambitions and craven need for revenge. If you’re not familiar with the details of this myth I’d advise you not to search for their stories online prior to reading this novel (as I unfortunately did) or you’ll ruin the blood-soaked plot. However, the power of Tóibín’s invention isn’t in plotting out this ancient story (whose details he seems to mostly stay faithful to) but in how he vividly imagines the points of view of these more marginalized figures of the myth and letting their voices color the well-worn tale. 

It’s somewhat funny looking back to my last review of a Tóibín novel when I read “Nora Webster” a few years ago. In the first line I comment that “his stories seldom involve high drama.” It’s like the author took that challenge and recreated a story with nothing but wickedly sensational drama! Tóibín’s great talent has traditionally been in writing domestic dramas where nothing much happens but we feel the angst of the characters’ life decisions so intensely that their stories become utterly profound. However, in recent years, he’s changed his tactic by harkening back to classic tales to expand our understanding of these old stories and imbue them with a modern sensibility. This is what he did by taking on the daring and weighty task of writing “The Testament of Mary.” Strangely, this brief novel where the mother of Jesus gets to have her say had little impact on me - although I absolutely loved the staged monologue starring Fiona Shaw holding a live vulture! However, I was enthralled reading “House of Names” for both it’s fiery action and sensitive take on a family ripped apart amidst their power struggle.

Agamemnon mostly comes across as a blandly driven man who “was an image of pure will.” The real conflict exists with his wife and children who are understandably overwrought by emotions because of the heinous actions of their family members. It’s interesting how the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra turn to meditations on faith. They separately struggle with their belief in the gods and how the gods’ actions play upon human emotions. Clytemnestra considers how “they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love… And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.” Whereas Electra thinks “Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.” Tóibín intensely portrays their struggle between being servants to the will of the gods and exerting their own willpower in changing the course of fate. The narrative also charts what seems to be a societal shift from a polytheistic civilization to one which is more atheistic – as well as a change from feudalism to one which isn’t so domineering towards serfs and slaves.

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Probably the most sympathetic character in this drama is young Orestes who finds himself a pawn in his family’s scheming until he’s a bit older and takes things into his own hands. Strangely, his account is the only one which isn’t actually narrated in the first person. Like Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel “The Song of Achilles”, the character of Orestes allows Tóibín to highlight this character’s homosexuality (which is suggested in some versions of this myth, but which Tóibín makes overt). There’s no question that Orestes falls in love with a man in this story, but he’s unable to explore the romantic implications of this due to societal constraints. While it’s considered quite natural in this society for leaders to have late-night rendezvous with guards, these affairs are never carried out in domestic partnerships. Tóibín powerfully depicts the tragedy and isolation which results from this.

The most poignant aspect of “House of Names” is tied to its title. Amidst all the devastation and bloodshed in this society, people’s existence doesn’t end neatly with their deaths. Instead they literally carry on in ghost-like forms to haunt the spaces where the intense dramas of their lives occurred. The way in which Tóibín portrays this is unsettling and strange and much more subtle than the raucous and magnificently-rendered graveyard found in Saunders’ recent “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But while Tóibín’s characters are still alive they frequently emphasize and assert their names as if everything about their being is tied up in these monikers. If their names are lost or forgotten then they will be lost to history and this makes the characters question if their existence has any significance at all. Through this Tóibín meaningfully probes if it’s better to be remembered for your actions (whether heroic or hateful) or if living without notoriety and letting your name be forgotten is preferable. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
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I’ve always found Colm Toibin’s writing mesmerizing even though his stories seldom involve high drama. “The Story of the Night” is a novel packed with suppressed emotion about a young man in Argentina who ingratiates himself with a politically-motivated conservative family while hiding his homosexuality - it’s always struck me as strange that no one ever noted the plot resemblance this novel bears to Alan Hollinghurst’s later-published Booker-winning “The Line of Beauty.” Toibin’s novel “The Master” about Henry James’ inner life is a quiet masterpiece. You’d assume his slender book “The Testament of Mary” would be full of biblical action, but it mostly involves the embittered reclusive Mary grumbling about her son and the way his disciples try to put words in her mouth and hound her. As I discussed at the time when I read it here, I didn’t find this last novel as impactful as Toibin’s other books that I’ve read. However, his novel “Brooklyn” left me reeling. This is another beautifully languorous story of a woman who emigrates from Ireland to NYC in the 1950s. Despite this, the crisis of choice that the protagonist Eilis encounters at the end is incredibly gripping. Now, in his new novel “Nora Roberts” which is a sort of sequel to “Brooklyn” – the two have little to link them except mention of Eilis at the beginning of this new novel - Toibin has employed a similar story-telling device but it has an even subtler effect.

“Nora Webster” is set in an Irish town in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s described as “the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.” The titular protagonist Nora must readjust to an unexpected new future which is now unmapped and contend with the expectations of the community which both supports and inhibits her. She is a woman in mourning for her husband Maurice, annoyed by the ceaseless parade of good-meaning visitors offering their condolences and trying to adjust to her new identity as a widow. Rather than lingering in regret over what has been lost she has a cavalier attitude about marching into the future: “That was the past, then, she thought as she walked into the living room, and it cannot be rescued.” She is understandably worried about money having two boys at home to raise on her own and two elder daughters who live away but still require her support.

I always admire novels that deal frankly with the financial pressures people experience and how this filters into and informs their choices. Barely asked if she wants the job, Nora is given a position at an established local company she worked at prior to her marriage. The experience is chillingly described: “Returning to work in that office belonged to a dream of being caged.” The scenes of office politics are expertly written with Nora caught between a fearsome matriarchal office manager and the talkative work-shy daughter of the owners. She is subservient to neither and determinedly maintains her independence despite the risk of losing this much-needed source of income.

The novel includes many cleverly observed moments of the struggles of motherhood. Nora is sometimes struck by how she may have been guilty of emotional negligence towards her children – especially during the painful process when Maurice was dying. Yet she is determined not to have her identity inhibited by her role as a mother and is careful not to fall into the nagging attitude she experienced from her own mother. Regardless of what course of action she takes with her children she is aware that “No matter what she did now, she would be playing a role.” It’s a problem people experience frequently when wanting to help someone yet finding themselves defined by their position to them. Whatever stance Nora takes in regards to her troubled son, her identity is inextricably linked to being the mother.

The 1968 march in Derry which ended in violence referred to in the novel

The 1968 march in Derry which ended in violence referred to in the novel

Perhaps the most emotionally compelling aspect of the novel is the way Toibin describes Nora’s new profound sense of aloneness which accompanies the loss of her husband. Being suddenly cut off from him is tantamount to experiencing an existential crisis: “So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.” Yet, it is in this space where she’s unmoored from the obligations of being a wife that she’s able to pursue her own interests in singing and music. Here she tastes what her life could have been if she’d made different choices early on. Her music teacher Laurie describes how “We can all have plenty of lives, but there are limits. You never can tell what they are.” There are endless possibilities in this world and our identities are constantly evolving, but whatever choices we make will necessarily cut us off from following other possibilities. For those who have lost people they love, it’s a tragic and ever-present fact that they are now excluded from this range of potential experience. Nora solemnly observes that whatever decisions she now makes “He would be the one left out.”

“Nora Webster” is an elegiac hymn to everything we could be and everything we’re not. The novel moves at a leisurely pace, but its power accumulates over time as the dynamics of Nora’s character intensifies. I fell hard for this feisty individual who refuses to be defined by her circumstances. It provides an interesting contrast to the protagonist Eilis of Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” who forges a very different sort of independent path for herself. Amidst the political instability of the time and pressure from those around her, Nora remains an uncompromising fixture in her community. Intelligent, strong and soulful.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
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I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this book. It’s barely over a hundred pages. I’m a great fan of Tóibín’s writing. I love “The Story of the Night” and “The Master.” Plus “Brooklyn” was a total revelation to me. As I was reading it I kept thinking ‘this is all very nice, but where is it going?’ Then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the book the protagonist must make a huge decision as if she’s balancing on a knife-edge and it is so incredibly gripping and emotional I couldn’t put the book down. So I’m always ready to cut Tóibín a lot of slack and follow through to the end of any book he writes. This doesn’t always pay off. His non-fiction book “Love in a Dark Time” starts off beautifully, but by the time he gets into his experiences with Almodovar it tails off into something much less substantial. However, the prospect of reading Mary’s perspective of her son’s crucifixion had so much promise I couldn’t wait to get stuck into this novella.

Here’s the trouble now that I’ve finished it: I don’t have very strong feelings about it one way or the other. It’s beautifully written and I admire the stoic dignity he gives to Mary as she refuses to capitulate to the disciples who harangue her and ask her threateningly to validate and endorse their accounts/interpretation of her son’s life. The story follows faithfully along the other accounts giving us Mary’s own unique perspective on Lazarus coming back from the dead, water being turned into wine at a wedding and the political machinations which led to the crucifixion. The book grabbed me most when Mary confesses how she really acted upon seeing her son being tortured, nailed to the cross and left for dead. Also, her painful remembrance of her lost husband is striking. However, the book moved too quickly for me to really become involved with Mary and her story. Maybe if I was a believer I’d feel more passionately involved as it might raise feelings of anger or love towards Mary’s controversial version of the story. Above all it’s a tremendously sympathetic account of how Mary might have felt about being the mother of a man hailed as the messiah. I enjoyed the beauty of Tóibín’s prose, but it hasn’t made much of an impression on me. Perhaps when I reread this book it will strike more of an emotional chord. It seems to me to be a book that would be better read in one sitting when it’s quiet and very late at night.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
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