ARC Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

HouseOfNamesCoverOfficial Synopsis from Goodreads: (WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THE BOOK ARE IN THE SYNOPSIS) From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children.“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.

In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in four parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.


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!

Links to House of Names on   Amazon   |    Goodreads

Have you read any of Colm Toibin’s books? Are you looking forward to this read? Or is this one that you will skip?


7 thoughts on “ARC Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

  1. I just skimmed your review since I’m reading the book at the moment, though I’m not far enough into it yet to decide what I think. I agree the beginning is very strong, but I’m sorry you felt it began to drag a bit after that. I’m a big fan of Toibin’s fairly quiet kind of writing usually, so I’ll have to see whether that carries me through… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I did really like the beginning and Clytemnestra. Even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book, I still keep thinking about it. I love how you describe his writing as quiet. I totally agree with that statement! And I’d like to read more of his work.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I’m not sure that this was the best pick for a first Colm Toibin read, but I do think that I’d like to read his other works. There were parts of this book that I really did love, and his writing is intriguing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, this was my first Colm Toibin book and I’m intrigued enough to want to read more. I just looked up Nora Webster and that sounds like an interesting read!


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