House of Names

By Colm Tóibín

Scribner. 275 pp. $26. nolead ends

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Reviewed

by Ron Charles


The descendants of Zeus were the world's first tabloid stars. These glamorous figures endured rape, murder, incest, cannibalism, and much more.

All this mischief seems like a lot of excitement for Colm Tóibín, an Irish writer whose novels have largely tilted toward the other side of the thrill meter. Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, in tone and action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he's so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with the immortal Greek playwrights.

His Clytemnestra has a hybrid voice that sounds both strangely modern and ancient. "Murder makes us ravenous," she says, "fills the soul with satisfaction that is fierce and then luscious enough to create a taste for further satisfaction." She delivers these lines while smiling over a pair of her victims left rotting in the sun, then immediately recalls the crime that provoked her wrath.

The novel's action picks up here when Clytemnestra is teetering atop a precarious kingdom. Having murdered Agamemnon, she must contend with rebellious subjects, a conniving new lover, and her surviving children, Orestes and Electra, who are definitely canceling their Mother's Day plans.

This is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between her ambition and the constraints on her gender. A Mediterranean Lady Macbeth, she must always exercise power clandestinely. Orestes comes to despise his mother's "chirping voice, the jokey inconsequentiality of her tone." But he understands her strategic personality. "She had learned to sound stupid," he says. "Beneath all her simpering and insinuation, there was fury, there was steel."

These are family members determined to live "in a world of their own inventions." All that's required is the aggressive maintenance of their pretense.

While Electra clings to her faith that the gods will bring justice, Clytemnestra says, "I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed." This reflects Tóibín's own loss of faith, yet House of Names maintains the tension between Clytemnestra's atheism and Electra's piety as they pursue their competing futures. Tóibín's reverence for the ancient texts is married to his modern sensibility - a union even Clytemnestra could celebrate.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.