04 April 2017

When I had finished my novel Nora Webster I knew that I would not write about Enniscorthy again for a while. Between that novel and Brooklyn, I had pictured almost every street in the town and told the stories that I most needed to tell. I did not think that I had anything more to say about the place where I grew up.

One day, when a friend suggested I should look at the story of the figure in Greek theatre of Clytemnestra, who murdered her husband Agamemnon and was in turn murdered by her son Orestes, egged on by his sister Electra, I was not sure. I had seen Electra performed a number of times and did not think that I had anything to add to the story of her rage against her mother.

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But then I came across a reference to a late play by Euripides called Iphigenia in Aulis, and I found a copy of it. This play opened up a world for me, showed me Clytemnestra’s motive for killing her husband in full detail and then in turn threw further light on the character of her daughter Electra.

But in no Greek text was there anything much about Orestes, the brother of Electra, the one who murders his mother. He is an actor, an agent, but he barely gets to speak. He has been away; he returns; he performs. That is almost all. He remains a mystery.

This left great room for me to imagine. Slowly, I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy. I found a voice for Clytemnestra, and made Electra more cowed and afraid, and almost more dangerous, than she had been in any other version of the story.

Colm Toibin on going to Greece

I became interested in re-seeing this fierce and ferociously dramatic family. I saw motive. I saw love and hatred and jealousy.

I was left free to imagine a story for Orestes. I gave him a memory, a conscience, a way of noticing and feeling. I created him at two different ages – as a young boy and then later as a young man.

I saw most of the book happening in a single space, almost like a town. A place full of secrets and whispers and rumours.

Even though House of Names is animated by murder and mayhem and the struggle for power, it is still a story about a single family as it tears itself asunder. When it begins, there is a father, a mother, two daughters and a son. No matter what happens I was dealing with family dynamics, something I have been dramatizing, in any case, in all my books. The same emotions, the same regrets, the same elemental feelings.

Only this time it was happening in Ancient Greece rather than in the streets of Enniscorthy.

  • House of Names

  • THE TOP 10 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

    'Unforgettable' Mary Beard

    'They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.'

    On the day of his daughter's wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

    His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

    Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family - mother, brother, sister - on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace's dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family's game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.

    House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.

    'A masterpeice' Daily Telegraph
    'Devastatingly human ... hauntingly believable' Guardian
    'A celebration of what novels can do' Observer

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