20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: House of Names by Colm Toibin and Waterland by Graham Swift

29344653Family, murder, revenge, history, the importance of names; death in a small, enclosed community. These seemingly very different books, written more than thirty years apart, turned out to reflect each other in surprising ways when I read them at the same time. Colm Toibin’s House of Names retells the well-known Ancient Greek story of the prelude to the siege of Troy, when Greek general Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods to gain a wind for his fleet to sail, and its postlude, when grieving mother Clytemnestra murders her husband and is in turn murdered by her remaining children, Orestes and Electra. Toibin’s version switches between three narrators, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra, and his writing is distinguished, as ever, by its simplicity. House of Names starts in strong form with the dense, disturbing narrative of Clytemnestra, which flashes back and forward between her present-day plans to kill Agamemnon and her memory of the days leading up to Iphigenia’s death. This is writing that needs to be read sentence by sentence, and repays the effort. The narrative becomes truly chilling when, as a last resort, Clytemnestra threatens to curse Agamemnon’s men if they murder her daughter: ‘”From my mother I received a set of words that she, in turn, had received from hers,” I said… “They cause the insides of all men within earshot to shrivel… If one of you lays a finger on my daughter or on me… I will invoke that curse. Unless you come behind us like a pack of dogs, I will speak the words of the curse.” She is then imprisoned under a rock before she can speak: ‘I was half-buried underground as my daughter died alone.’ This is a very familiar story, but Toibin manages to make us feel the horror of the sacrifice all over again through its impact on Iphigenia’s mother.

Unfortunately, for me, House of Names went downhill from there, although there’s another wonderfully creepy, if very short, section from Clytemnestra at the end that brings a bit of the otherness back into the narrative. Orestes’s third-person sections, which dominate the rest of the novel, are the absolute opposite of his mother’s narration; the prose is incredibly sparse, and I zipped through it in no time. There are particular bits of the story, such as when Orestes escapes an oppressive institution with a couple of other young men, or when they roam across the wilderness looking for shelter and getting into fights, that reminded me of dystopian YA fiction that draws from classical motifs, such as Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, although Toibin’s writing is certainly better than Brown’s clunky prose. Electra’s first-person narration also failed to come alive for me, especially as I found myself struggling with the question of motivation; Electra knows her father killed her sister and that her mother killed her father in retaliation for this act, and yet she doesn’t seem to struggle at all with the decision to kill her mother until late in the day. Motivation is an interesting problem in retellings of Greek myth or legend, and I am certainly sympathetic to the stance that modern readers should not be expected to emphasise with the motivations of these characters, because the stories are serving a different purpose. I admired the gestures towards this in Madeline Miller’s excellent Trojan retelling The Song of Achilles, for example, where Achilles is both humanised, especially through his relationship with Patroclus, and utterly alien as he wrestles with his godlike destiny. However, because the utterly relatable Clytemnestra has been plonked in the middle of this version, this distorts the less sympathetic, deliberately stylised depictions of the other characters.

19689086088Graham Swift’s Waterland has the same feel of grand family tragedy, despite being narrated by an ordinary enough lock-keeper’s son turned history teacher, Tom Crick, who now lives in Greenwich but grew up beside the Great Ouse in East Anglia. Waterland is deservedly seen as one of the greatest novels about the England fenland, and Swift’s descriptions are spot on (as is the cover of the edition I read, pictured to the left). ‘No one needs telling that the land in that part of the world is flat,’ he writes in the novel’s opening pages. ‘It stretched away to the horizon, its uniform colour, peat-black, varied only by the crops that grew upon it… its uniform levelness broken only by the furrowed and dead-straight lines of ditches and drains, which, depending on the state of the sky and the angle of the sun, ran like silver, copper or golden wires across the fields, and which, when you stood and looked at them, made you shut one eye and fall prey to fruitless meditations on the laws of perspective.‘ Unfortunately, much of the writing in Waterland is less like this and more like this: ‘Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world… But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn’t end… For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had manufactured for itself all the time it was growing up. Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it.’ Waterland is one of those books that is about History and Time and Stories, expressing ideas that perhaps don’t sound too bad in small doses but which I found both familiar and pretentious by the time I was about halfway through (it very much reminded me of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson in this respect).

As my post on Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures indicates (as well as the title of this blog) I love thinking about History and Time and Stories. So why didn’t I like Waterland? Simply, I didn’t feel these grand musings were emotionally earnt. As in House of Names, the most powerful and harrowing stories in Waterland are about the suffering of women, a thread that runs through the history of Tom Crick’s family. Sarah Atkinson, Tom’s maternal great-great grandmother, is ‘young and spirited’ when she marries fenland ale brewer Thomas in the early nineteenth century, but when he falsely accuses her of infidelity and strikes her across the face, she is left brain-damaged for her remaining fifty-four years of life, retaining ‘the paradoxical pose of one who keeps watch – but over nothing. She will not lose her beauty… Even in old age when her flesh has shrunk… she will preserve the sadly imperious demeanour of an exiled princess.‘ After Sarah’s death, it rains for two days straight, flooding the town, and the townspeople spread a rumour that Sarah has returned from the dead. Two generations on, Sarah’s grandson, Ernest, and his daughter, Helen (who is Tom Crick’s mother), begin an incestuous relationship after the burning down of the Atkinson’s brewery. Finally, Tom’s own wife, Mary, having endured an illegal abortion when she was a teenager which left her infertile, ends up in a mental health institution at the age of fifty-two after she steals somebody else’s baby and brings it home. And yet, despite these characters, women feel curiously absent from Waterland, brought in to build the background against which men’s stories are told. It’s one of those novels that makes me feel it was written with only male readers in mind, although it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. Ultimately, I suppose, women are othered as distant, beautiful and insane figures; unable to prevent what happens to them; only able to be hurt. The death of a young boy that opens the novel similarly fades into the background, and we are left only with Tom’s own, theoretical, thoughts about the nature of History, Time and Stories, as if such ideas exist in a vacuum, or as if they can exonerate him from his own role in all this female pain.

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One thought on “20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: House of Names by Colm Toibin and Waterland by Graham Swift

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer: very short update | Laura Tisdall

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