Focusing on the life of Henry James, Colm Toibin's The Master goes beyond the usual "novelization" of someone's biography. Toibin has done a tremendous amount of research and has obviously read everything James has written, but he has so distilled this information that he actually recreates Henry James. Most remarkably, he does this while using the third person point of view to tell the story, preserving the objective tone but bringing forth characters and events so vibrant with life that Toibin's James is the man we know from his novels, letters, and journals.
When the novel opens in 1895, James's play, Guy Domville, has been booed on its opening night. James, now fifty-two, has hoped for a career as a playwright, believing success on stage will put an end to "his long solitary days" and allow him to spend more time among actors, whom he finds fascinating. Described as "a great stranger...observing the world as a mere watcher from the window," James is a lonely, solitary figure throughout the novel, a man unable to form a committed relationship with anyone, either male or female, sometimes wanting companionship but not closeness, and always needing solitude to work. Through flashbacks, Toibin shows how James's early upbringing may have been partly responsible for his feelings of isolation.
When James begins writing his stories and novels, he draws inspiration from the people he knows best and the events which have affected their lives and his own. His sister Alice is the model for a child in The Turn of the Screw, his cousin Minny Temple is the inspiration for several of his most important female characters-in "Poor Richard," Daisy Miller, and Portrait of a Lady--and his brother Wilky's wounds in the Civil War provide James with details he includes in other stories. Virtually every aspect of James's life works its way into a story, and as he gets inside the psyches of his characters through his fiction, he reveals his own psyche, his sympathies, and his personal conflicts.
Toibin's dual focus on James's life and its embodiment in his fiction give powerful immediacy and verisimilitude to this novel, and one cannot help but feel an emotional connection to James. His connections to great families and writers whose names are well known, and to people willing to accept James completely on his own terms provide Toibin with unlimited source material. It is Toibin's own talents in ordering this information, bringing it to life, and revealing its importance, however, which make this masterful novel so important. Mary Whipple