Book Review: House of Names by Colm Tóibín

By Sophia Lo, Teen Volunteer

4.5 out of 5 stars519SnFtdskL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Revenge and vengeance. Those two ideas are woven into many of the classic Greek myths, and in House of Names, Colm Tóibín takes the twisted story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and crafts it into an extraordinary novel.

House of Names begins with a well-known myth. Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, is sacrificing his oldest daughter, Iphigenia, so the gods will allow the Greek to set sail to Troy. As Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra hears the screams of her beloved daughter, she begins to plot her revenge: the murder of her husband. Clytemnestra hatches a plan, takes Aegisthus as her lover, and when Agamemnon returns from war with another woman, Clytemnestra murders them both. And so begins the rule of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. But it quickly becomes clear that Clytemnestra has less control than she thought.

Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, has been kidnapped, and her second daughter, Electra, was thrown into the dungeons by Aegisthus as an attempt to shield her from her father’s murder. After Agamemnon’s death, Tóibín brings his readers on a journey as Orestes finds his way home, as Electra struggles with the tragic deaths in her family, and as the two siblings eventually must face the results of their mother’s frightening rule.

Rather than by chapter, Tóibín divides his novel into “chunks” where he follows individual characters, much like George R.R. Martin in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. He begins with Clytemnestra’s perspective and allows readers to sympathize with her before slowly revealing her spite and anger as she terrorizes her people. Tóibín carefully develops Orestes’ character, and we glimpse his fears and desires and his relationships develop. This was definitely a very strong point in House of Names, and readers will enjoy Orestes’ plotline.

Tóibín devotes less of his novel to Electra, and as a result, her character is far less compelling than Orestes and Clytemnestra. I wanted to learn more about Electra and her fears and hopes, and Tóibín certainly did make up for this in his development of Orestes’ character.

As a mythology fanatic, I wish I could say I’ve read each epic and play. While I know the stories, it’s easy to get stuck in the long prose and lengthy passages. Tóibín remains true to ancient Greece, to it setting and time period, while writing with modern style and flair, keeping readers turning to the next page.

I would highly recommend this book to mythology lovers; but keep in mind that House of Names is inspired by Greek myths but does not necessarily follow the original stories and plays. Even for those unfamiliar with the original tales, House of Names remains a fantastic read. Above all, House of Names is an intriguing story of a dysfunctional family, with their motivations marked by vengeance and their idea of “justice.”


Sophia Lo is currently a senior at Hopewell Valley Central High School. In addition to volunteering at the Pennington Public Library, Sophia is also an editor of her school newspaper, secretary for her FBLA chapter, and a clarinetist for the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra. She’s a lover of all things fantasy and is anxiously waiting for George R. R. Martin to release The Winds of Winter.