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Review: 'House of Names' is family drama on a mythic stage

"House of Names: a Novel" (Scribner), by Colm Toibin

In the days before the gods lost interest in human folly, King Agamemnon summoned his daughter Iphigenia to wed Achilles. His wife, Clytemnestra, believed his ruse and led their young daughter to what turned out to be her death in a blood sacrifice on the eve of the Trojan War.

In "House of Names," Colm Toibin reimagines Greek myth through the eyes of vengeance-seeking Clytemnestra and her surviving children, Electra and Orestes. He lays out their interlocking crimes at a steady pace in strong, simple words as if he were setting a table for a family meal.

A rusty blade, an old cloth, dark whispers and a hollow look — these are the stones from which he builds a tower of atrocities.

Fans of "Game of Thrones" will recognize the material and thrill to it. Lies, secrets and betrayals lead to kidnapping, imprisonment, rape and murder — death by poisoning, death by knife.

Bloody yet somehow never garish, Toibin's novel should appeal to many readers. Classicists will appreciate the masonry as he fills in gaps in Orestes' story. We learn what Orestes knows and doesn't know about his family's drama, how Electra plays him and what motivates his matricide.

Lovers of fine writing will note Toibin's deft observations and how they create tension. Late in the book, Orestes sees changes in his sibling: "He wondered how much of this was an act and under what pressure it might fall apart, as her earlier pose as the daughter who lived by the light of the gods had fallen apart."

Toibin set his well-loved novels "Brooklyn" and "Nora Webster" in his native County Wexford in Ireland. Readers longing for more must make due with an idyll at a seaside cottage where Orestes matures to manhood after escaping captors. Storytelling, jokes and stonewalls make this section feel like Ireland, not ancient Greece.

The love and disloyalty of families undergirds "House of Names." This is Toibin's true turf, and he makes the most of it on a mythic stage.

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