"House of Names" by Colm Toibin; Scribner (288 pages, $26)
Over the course of 10 novels, Colm Toibin never has strayed far from the family. He devoted "Mothers and Sons" to stories about that familial relationship. The titular single mom in "Nora Webster" discovers a very different side of herself after her husband's premature death. "Brooklyn" centers on the pain and joy experienced by families split by emigration.
"House of Names" jumps back in time and tone as it fiercely re-imagines the ancient blood-soaked tale of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their three children.
It's no spoiler to those who know their Greek myth that three-fifths of the family ends up with slit throats. The blood lust includes a treacherous father sacrificing his daughter for the good of a war effort, a wife plotting for years to kill her Trojan War hero hubby, and a matricide.
Although a reader may know what's coming, the novel's imaginative take on the twisted psychology behind the horrific acts is what keeps it compelling.
Clytemnestra and her eldest child, Iphigenia, are lured to Agamemnon's distant military encampment with a promise of Iphigenia's betrothal to Achilles, only to face the teen's public execution.
Clytemnestra doesn't buy her husband's argument that since this sacrifice was ordered by the gods, it's out of his control. Besides condemning the mighty Agamemnon's weakness, she rejects the religious doctrine of the day, demanding, "Do the gods smile on men who have their daughters killed?"
Back at a palace alive with dark intrigue, Clytemnestra takes sinister Aegisthus as her lover and co-conspirator, then orders a round of kidnappings and banishments that include her son, Orestes.
After a forced march and harrowing imprisonment, the young man escapes and spends five years with his beloved Leander in the seaside farmhouse of an old woman. That period of contentment is not to last, of course.
Returning to the palace where Agamemnon has been killed, Orestes and his sister, Electra, are swept up in a plot to put the dagger to their mom, now Queen of Argos. Will peace ever come to this cursed land ravaged by revenge and implacable deities?
The final chapters are among the most mysterious and beautiful Toibin has written; a high bar. In a sort of prose fugue, Clytemnestra returns from the afterlife cloaked in an amnesiac shadow and searching for Orestes. "There was a time, I know, when I felt rage and I felt sorrow. But now I have lost what leads to rage and sorrow."
Is it that the dead can't hold a grudge? Has she forgotten what Orestes did to her? Is vengefulness only for the living? Or does Clytemnestra figure she had it coming for having killed her son's father?
Answers are hinted at in a final mother-son meeting, but like any lasting myth worth the scroll it's printed on, this one is open to myriad interpretations.