For this novel, Tóibín borrowed from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and then used his imagination to retell a story from Greek mythology.
The novel opens with Clytemnestra’s killing of her husband Agamemnon who sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia so the gods would make the winds blow favourably, thereby allowing the Greek fleet to leave for Troy. Clytemnestra joined forces with her lover Aegisthus but theirs is not a happy life after Agamemnon’s death. Her remaining daughter Electra and son Orestes also suffer as a consequence of their mother’s actions. Violence breeds resentment and more violence.
Clytemnestra’s story is narrated in first person and she, by far, emerges as the most interesting character. I am certain I am not the first person to compare her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, an ambitious, manipulative woman who has people murdered while pretending to be weak. She speaks in a “chirping voice” having “learned to sound stupid” and to pretend that she is “foolish or distracted,” but Orestes realizes that she “allowed nothing to escape her. . . Beneath all her simpering and insinuation, there was fury, there was steel.” She is ruthless, but Tóibín succeeds in humanizing her, at least to some extent. She is a betrayed wife horrendously deceived by her husband and a heartbroken, traumatized mother grieving for her daughter. Love of family is certainly part of her motivation. In her post-death monologue delivered from a world of “blankness, strangeness, silence,” Clytemnestra speculates, “Maybe the only reason I wander in these spaces has to do with some . . . feeling, or what is left of it. Maybe that feeling is love.” One cannot help but feel some sympathy for her because she is searching for the son she loves, unaware that he is guilty of matricide.
Orestes is the least compelling character. Interestingly, his sections are narrated in a rather impersonal third person. The reader learns little about Orestes’ feelings about the deaths of his sister and father. He seems a very tentative person, unsure of himself. He is indecisive and is very much dominated by others. He relies on his lover Leander: “He felt the warmth of Lander’s shoulder when he rested his hand on him and the strength of his will, and this gave him comfort.” Electra makes all of the plans for Clytemnestra’s killing, having “worked and prepared” for the act, and she persuades her brother by appealing to his bravery; in the end, Orestes “knew that he would do as his sister had asked.” A portion of the novel is dedicated to his five years away from the palace; I cannot understand why so much focus is given to this insipid young man who is anything but a Greek hero. Orestes doesn’t even know about having sex with a woman; he believes a woman has become pregnant because of him but he has to be told, “’I don’t think that what we do in the dark can make me pregnant. For that to happen, it must be different.’” As in many of Tóibín’s other novels, it is the women who are the stronger, more interesting characters.
Tóibín veers from the original stories by making it clear that characters are responsible for their actions. What happens is not the result of gods intervening in events. In fact, none of the gods are mentioned by name. Clytemnestra emphasizes the disinterest of gods: “They barely know we are alive. For them, if they were to hear of us, we would be like the mild sound of wind in the trees, a distant, unpersistent, rustling sound.” The reader is to see that characters’ actions are the result of very human desires and emotions.
The style is that of understatement. Much is left unsaid. People don’t ask obvious questions and avoid talking about certain topics. When Leander returns to his family, after a five-year absence, “no one wanted to know in any detail precisely where he had been, or what had happened to him. He had been away from them; that was enough.” When Orestes returns home after five years, “He found that both his mother and his sister became nervous if they thought that he was even going to speak.” Instead, people look for “easy topics to discuss” and “think of something soft and pacifying to say.” The word “silence” is used at least 50 times. This is in keeping with a palace “full of lingering echoes and whisperings” where machinations and intrigue abound. Orestes is warned that “’a trusted friend is the one you can least trust.’”
Retellings of classic literature do not always work. This one does. The novel is not one of Tóibín’s most memorable perhaps, but it is definitely worth reading; it gives insight into characters with whom we may be acquainted but whom we do not really know.