The thread that ties the beautifully written nine stories in this book together is that in each one there is a complex relationship between a mother and a son. I don't think that all of them `focus' on this relationship, as the blurb on the back has it, for only in four of the nine stories is it central. Rather, each one seems to me to focus on either the mother or the son; but whichever it is, we are let deeply into that person's thoughts and see the world through that person's eyes, and mostly it is a sad or even tragic world. A death figures in several of the stories. Some are most evocatively set in various very Irish communities: a criminal one in the first story, an Irish pub in the second, a small village where everyone knows everyone else in others. The long last story is set in the mountains of Spain. All are memorable in their deceptively simple style and in their psychological content.
This is a collection of stories from Toibin which is varied in range and setting, though a weight does adhere, a certain flatness of tone, to some of the prose. The first in the collection The Use of Reason concerns a man who has stolen paintings from a museum, one of which is a painting by Rembrandt of a very old woman. The man (never named) learns through a policeman who has become an ally, though not a trusted one, that another cop is a drinking partner of his mother, and his mother talks intemperately, especially in drink. This makes him ultra cautious about getting rid of the paintings, though he seems to have a solution through a couple of Dutchmen, who have arrived to view the Rembrandt. The maddening caution he has to use to feel secure eventually eats away at his reasoning abilities and he eventually decides that it would be safest to burn the painting. There is a dark, twisted sort of humour in this story which gives it a richly compelling feel.
Mothers and their sons are deftly created, and the strength of this writing is in its delicate piecing together of relationships, a sure, taut, measured storytelling style and the gift of empathy entirely unmarked by sentiment. It's not flashy and there are few moments of relief from the fatalism of family conflict, but for all that, there is a stately kind of beauty within these pages.
on 24 April 2007
In Mothers and Sons, Irish writer Colm Toibin continues his trademark gift for presenting nuance and intimacy in this collection of nine haunting and exquisitely written short stories. Melancholy and thought-provoking, and filled with the complexities of life, Toibin introduces us to sons and mothers who are constantly grappling to understand each other and where an emotional canvas of familiaral expectation is as rich and as unexpected as life itself.
In the first story, "The Use of Reason," alcoholism lurks just below the surface as an art thief living in Dublin realizes that he may not be able to rely on the discretion of his mother as he once first thought. Having just stolen a valuable Rembrandt, he's anxious to unload the work to a pair of Dutch criminals, but unfortunately, his mother just doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut boasting in the local pub her beloved son's escapades.
In "The Name of the Game" we see a mother forced to provide for her son when after the death of her husband she inherits his supermarket, along with all of his debts. All of a sudden, faced with certain poverty, she learns to be tough and competitive and on the advice of her suppliers, she takes a risk and enlarges the store into a chip and burger shop, perhaps relying more on her own tenacity, than on the family's dwindling resources. In the process of remaking the business, she discovers that her son has a good head for numbers and comes to her aid, helping out with the accounting and preparing the way for her retirement.
Other stories cover similar themes: There's a mother's disbelief, disappointment and her decisive fear of facing the truth when she hears that her son has been arrested over accusations of sexual abuse; then there's a mother who is battling her son's depression whilst also coping with her husband, bedridden after a stroke; and a son who was abandoned as a child and then suddenly hears his mother singing in a pub; and yet another son, who after his mother's funeral, goes out partying with his mates and awakens to all things sexual one night on a beach.
Each story is infused with the myriad attributes of human emotions: the heartbreak that exists over the loss of a parent, a love that is betrayed, and the inevitable disappointments that come when you realize that your son or your mother, or even your sibling is perhaps not the person who you thought they were. While the smaller stories provide small vignettes of anticipation along with despair and even acceptance, the longer stories have a luminosity all their own and are infused with a steadily mounting tension.
The final story "A Long Winter," and set in Spain is all about yearning and defeat, and centers on a son's concern for his alcoholic mother when the needless cruelty of his father eventually leads to her disappearance into the harsh bleak Spanish winter. As the boy spends his days desperately searching for her, he battles with his hidden desires and his attraction for a good-looking police officer and then for an uneducated houseboy whom his father employs to help around the house.
Throughout these stories Toibin courageously reiterates the truth unflinchingly about love and families and the ties that inevitably bind us together. Indeed the author seems to embrace what he sees as the melancholy and sadder aspects of life. Written in Toibin's now familiar exquisite style, this collection contains many small gems, and are fine examples of the art of short story writing. In the end, Mothers and Sons is often heart wrenching, but always thought-provoking as these tales evoke the bittersweet angst of ordinary people, the "mothers and sons" that exist in us all. Mike Leonard April 07.
It must be especially daunting for an Irish novelist to embark on a collection of short stories and to know that amongst your countrymen are two of the 20th century's greatest exponents of the form, John McGahern and William Trevor.
Colm Tóibín, much praised for his novels and having had his last two shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has chosen to bring together three longer stories and six brief ones in this collection. The underpinning theme running through the collection is obvious from the title.
Of the two shortest stories, "A Song" describes the thoughts of a musician, abandoned by his mother, who sees her in a bar and, as she enthralls the audience with her folk singing, he imagines how he can accompany her: "He, in turn, had worked out in his head a way of singing above her. He imagined fiercely how it could be done, how her voice would evade such accompaniment, and perhaps deliberately wrong-foot it, but he believed if he was ready to more a fraction more up or down as she did that it could be managed". "A Summer Job" describes the tensions between a mother, her son and her own mother. The grandmother gradually develops a strong bond with the boy that turns excludes her daughter, "She realized, as they went downstairs, that both John and her mother wanted her to leave, both were careful not to respond to anything she said. They were almost hostile, as though she had left a gate open in the field". The mother tries to understand how and why her son has become so emotionally isolated from her.
In the opening story, "The Use of Reason", which begins with the opening sentence, "The city was a great emptiness.", a master-thief hides behind his external image as a thug, knowing "that behind everything lay something else, a hidden motive perhaps, or something unimaginable and dark, that a person was merely a disguise for another person, that something said was merely a code for something else." He does not fear jail since it allows him to be alone with his routine and his secrets, and he knows that he will not give anything away. His alcoholic mother tells people that her thug of a son will punish them if they cause difficulties but her talk may be a weakness for him and he may now need to takes steps to become independent of her.
In "The Name of the Game" a husband's death has left a small supermarket to his wife. She sees this as an opportunity to escape the town and her memories by building it into a going concern. Having done this she realises that the unexpected enthusiasm of her son, Gerard, is based on his expectation of taking over the shop when she retires. He tells her that he has finished with school, "Suddenly he had become brave. `Well, you needn't think you are working here. This is my business and I'm not having you.' `You can't run it without me,' he said. `Watch me, watch me,' she said."
Eight of the nine stories about the bond between a mother and her son are set in Ireland, now changing in a boom that's erasing its legendary poverty and backwardness. The odd one out is the novella, "A Long Winter", set in Spain. An alcoholic mother in a remote Pyrenean village walks away from her loveless home. Her son, Miquel, desperately searches for her amongst the deep snow. As the structure of his home falls apart, Miquel and his father are unable to cope and simply let the laundry pile up. A young boy, Manolo, is brought in to do the duties always carried out by the mother and gradually Miguel and the boy experience feelings for one another. As Miguel's father goes to shoot a wounded vulture, "Miquel leaned back towards Manolo, seeking the warmth of him, looking for some grim comfort as the next shot rang out. Manolo held him hard to make sure that he did not move any closer to the dying bird and the carcass, half torn asunder now, no use to anyone."
These stories are undeniably bleak, presenting characters that are both defiant and angry. A better title might have been "Sad, Mad Mothers and Sons" and perhaps my response to the whole collection might have been greater had the overall emotional horizon been somewhat higher.
I am sure that the earliest short stories by McGahern and Trevor were just the first step in developing their mastery of the short story and equipping themselves with the tools to know when to back interesting, but extraneous, writing. Toibin has a magnificent talent and I have little doubt that subsequent collections of short stories will see him follow a similar path. Despite his lack of a 5* rating, this is a very good debut collection.