Tóibín, an enthusiast of classic storytelling, from the Bible (The Testament of Mary, 2012) to Henry James (The Master, 2004), this time takes a crack at Greek mythology.
This novel of palace intrigue is inspired by the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, focusing on the House of Atreus’ murderous infighting. Clytemnestra is provoked into a homicidal rage toward her husband, King Agamemnon, for sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia to win the Trojan War. As Clytemnestra schemes with her lover, Aegisthus, to plot Agamemnon’s death and fill the power vacuum in his wake, her two other children, Orestes and Electra, are sent into exile. And though the children eventually make their way back into the palace halls and mom’s trust, paranoia abounds within every relationship (“a performance that started with smiles and ended with shrieks,” as Electra puts it). The novel is broken into sections focusing on Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes, and the novel’s intensity—and to a large degree, its success—depends on who’s doing the talking. Clytemnestra, narrating in the first person, is a captivating and terrifying figure, heartbroken and ruthless in her lust for power. (“The gurgling sound he would make when I cut his throat became my obsession,” she fumes.) But Orestes’ portion of the tale, narrated in the third person, runs at a low boil of mustier fable-speak despite being packed with themes of protection, vengeance, and self-defense. That makes the novel feel tonally disjointed, but throughout, Tóibín captures the way that corruption breeds resentment and how resentment almost unstoppably breeds violence. The original myths established these characters as the gods’ playthings, but Tóibín reframes this version in “a time when the gods are fading,” the better to lay the blame for our human failures plainly on ourselves.
This reboot of an ancient story is alternately fiery and plodding, but Tóibín plainly grasps the reasons for its timelessness.