The South by Colm Toibin is an intense, though fitful chronicle of a woman's life, a life as yet incomplete. It presents a patchwork of detail amidst vast tracts of unknown, like a painting that has a suggestion of complete outline interspersed with patches of intricate detail. Thus, eventually, we know some amazing things about Katherine Proctor and we have shared much of her life. She remains, paradoxically, largely anonymous, however, as she probably does to herself. The title carries an agenda for Katherine Proctor's life, since aspects of the word provide setting and context for phases in her life.
We meet her having just left her husband and her ten-year-old son. She was unhappily married to Tom. Richard was her spitting image. We never really get to know why she left, why she so definitively broke with a past that appeared both secure and fulfilled. A part of her motives may have sprung from her status as a Protestant in Enniscorthy, a small town near the sea in the south of Ireland, in the south-east. She thus inherited a status that bore its own history, a history of which she was aware, but minus its detail. But it could only have been part of an explanation, because it was her husband and her life, her private concerns, that she fled.
In the 1950s, she went south to Spain, settling in Barcelona. There she met Miguel, a man with his own history. He had fought with the anarchists in the Civil War. He still had friends, colleagues from the fight. Katherine falls for him. They move to a stone house in the Pyrenees. He paints. She paints. She bears him a child.
Katherine meets Michael Graves, an Irishman, doubly coincidentally also from her home town. He is working in Barcelona. He seems to be an ailing, gently cynical character, who is clearly besotted with her. When things with Miguel turn unexpectedly sour, he offers solace and comfort. This time, however, Katherine had nothing to do with the split, a separation that also took away her young daughter.
She painted more, hibernated. And then there grew an urge to trace the son she had left behind many years before. He was still in their family house, the one she had deserted, where he lived with his wife and daughter. There are tensions. They are solved. Michael Graves is also back in Ireland.
Katherine rediscovers the south, her homeland, through painting it. Though penniless, she gets by, sometimes appearing to live off her own resources of passion and commitment. Though perhaps not conscious of it herself, she is always striving for a fulfilment she believes she never attains. In fact, she has it all along. Though a victim of circumstance, she is ready to grasp any opportunity and live it. "Only a protestant would go into sea so cold," Michael says to her. She gets wet. He doesn't. And in the end, though we still hardly know her, we like Katherine proctor, and we respect her.
The South alternates its narrative between first and third person in a subtle way tat allows the reader to sculpt its main character. She becomes wholly tangible, but rarely are we told anything about her. She lives. We meet her, and we react. Colm Toibin's achievement in this, his first novel, is considerable.