Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Setting: Ancient Greece, during and after The Trojan War
***I received an eARC copy of House of Names from Scribner via NetGalley***
Review: Started out very strong, but there were very slow sections, and a focus on the bland that was confusing.
House of Names is the new book by Colm Toibin, the author who wrote the popular book Brooklyn, which was made into a movie of the same name. I have not yet read Brooklyn, nor anything else by Colm Toibin, so am unable to compare this book to his other works. House of Names started out oh-so-very strong with narrative from the point of view of Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother to Iphigenia. The book starts as Clytemnestra discovers that her husband has plans to sacrifice her daughter in order to appease the gods. Clytemnestra is a fascinating character to read. She is strong and determined in her revenge against Agamemnon, and this beginning part was compelling and drew me into the story.
Unfortunately, then the narrative switches to Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, as he is kidnapped and goes to live in the country somewhere. We get his travels to the location where he’s being held, and then his escape from that place. These had some interesting bits, but as a whole it was slow and dragged. Orestes just isn’t that exciting of a character, especially when compared to the fire of Clytemnestra. Orestes just kind of floats around in his head, and while I enjoyed his scenes with his fellow prisoners, Mitros and Leander, there was too much wandering around and thinking for me. I felt sorry for him most of the time.
Besides Clytemnestra and Orestes, we also see a bit from Electra, Clytemnestra’s other daughter (and Orestes’ sister). I was so confused why Electra and later on Orestes, were so angry with their mother. The official synopsis above basically details the entire main plot of this book, and I never figured out why they were so angry. Their father killed their sister, and their mother took revenge for the murder of her daughter. And yet they both side with the father? I didn’t get it.
In terms of the writing, some of the more literary passages were repetitive and took paragraphs to state what could be said in one or two lines. Some of it was really beautifully written, but it was a bit too much. But, one thing that I really appreciated in the writing was the vagueness of certain scenes. I really thought that the violent scenes were written very well. They had just enough detail so you could picture the violence in your head, but not enough to be gruesome or graphic. The writing in these scenes felt reigned in, and Toibin really could’ve gone all out with the graphic violence factor here as this story involves murder and warfare. There is also a lot of sex, but that was also vaguely written as well (for the most part), and since I’m not a fan of a lot of graphic sex in books, I appreciated the vagueness here.
Another thing I really appreciated about House of Names was the lack of elaborate mention of all the gods that the Ancient Greeks believed in. I’m not big on Greek mythology, and sometimes in books that focus on this time there is so much about the mythology that I get confused. None of that happened here; the gods were just in the background, and not all named out. So I would say that for someone interested in Ancient Greece and/or The Trojan War, but worried that they wouldn’t be able to follow all the history, that isn’t a problem here. The book was easy to follow in terms of plot and characters, and that isn’t always the case for books set in this time frame.
While the beginning of the book was very strong, and I thought the middle was slow, I didn’t care for the ending at all, and either thought it needed to end a bit sooner, or it needed to continue on. I finished the book feeling confused and not sure what the point was. I wanted a book about a strong woman looking for vengeance, and that was just a small piece of this story. Or perhaps that strong woman seeking vengeance isn’t Clytemnestra, as the synopsis promises, but Electra. And it’s too bad she never grabbed my attention.
Bottom Line: Too much focus on the bland and doesn’t have a satisfying ending, but parts of it are gorgeous to read.
Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the eARC!
Have you read any of Colm Toibin’s books? Are you looking forward to this read? Or is this one that you will skip?