Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is rapidly becoming one of those comfort-food authors for me, a storyteller of such supreme skill and grace that his narratives just seem to flow as naturally as if they have always existed. In Mothers and Sons, his debut short story collection published in 2006, Tóibín shows off his versatility in tackling the short fiction form. The title is both a nod to the Turgenevian tradition (think Fathers and Sons) of laying out an explicit familial theme, and a continuation of one of Tóibín’s most persistent subject matters – the oft-complex relationships that sons can have with their mums, and vice versa. (The most telling example of this from his corpus is the short but brilliant novella The Testament of Mary, which I reviewed in 2012.)

Throw into the mix the experiences of Irishness, of homosexuality, and of the grinding travails of a workaday life, and you’ve got a potent concoction of captivating tales. The most captivating for me was the story “The Name of the Game,” about a suddenly widowed woman named Nancy who discovers that her dead husband has left behind a large amount of debt from their third-rate supermarket business in small-town Ireland. To dig herself out of her financial hole, Nancy scrounges to launch a chip shop and an off-license, and the two businesses prove to be a roaring success. Too much of a success, as it turns out, since it drives a wedge between her and high school-aged son Gerard, who wants to take over the business from her the minute he graduates. But Nancy’s plan is to sell the businesses to wipe out their debts and then move the family to Dublin to create better opportunities for her children. The scene in which Gerard learns of her true plans is as heartbreaking as it is chilling.

There are other stellar pieces in this book. The collection opens with the story “The Use of Reason,” about a professional thief who finds himself in the possession of an expensive piece of art that he struggles to liquidate into easy cash. I also enjoyed the piece “A Song”, about a musician son named Noel who discovers that his estranged mother, a much more famous musician, is playing in the small Irish club he is in. This story has a companion piece, “Famous Blue Raincoat” (a reference to the famed Leonard Cohen song), told from the perspective of that mum, a woman named Lisa, who has abandoned her musical career and the son (Noel) that she had long ago to launch a new family. The story roils back to her musician days and what it cost her sister Julie, who was also in the band. Both stories touch on this idea of how family connections may not be the strongest in our lives, or strong enough to endure the artistic dreams that we hold to be more important.

Not every story in Mothers and Sons engaged me. After such a lively combination of tales in the first half of the book, I must confess to flatlining through “A Journey” and “Three Friends.” But then Tóibín came roaring back with a great closer, a story called “A Long Winter,” about a family’s search for its missing mother who went wandering into a massive snow storm after she was called out on her hitherto undisclosed drinking problem. The grief that her son, the narrator, goes through as he realizes that she is most likely dead and her body won’t be found until the spring thaw, is truly gripping. This story touches on themes of disclosure and how far we can push the ones we love until we’ve pushed them too far. It was a strong, and strongly understated, finisher for what was (for the most part) a deeply immersive and harrowing collection of short stories.

My review of The Testament of Mary.
My review of The Master.

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