Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yes, Master

Over the past few years when someone has asked me for a book recommendation I usually recommend two Irish writers and two Brits. The latter are Alan Hollinghurst--his best book is The Swimming Pool Library, and Ian MacEwan, most recently famous for Atonement (although Chesil Beach is a gorgeous novella). On the Irish side, its Jamie O'Neall (At Swim Two Boys) and, most eminent of all of these, Colm Toibin.

His book called The Master, about Henry James is a masterpiece. Written in the style of Henry James which makes it once challenging and rewarding it is original, insightful, and at least emotionally accurate, based on everything I've read about James. He paints a portrait of the artist equal parts repressed and brilliant.

I've just finished his short story collection called Mothers and Sons. It is stylistically nothing like The Master, meaning that the diction is not elevated in any way; but it is like The Master in that Toibin has a way of getting to the soulful depths of his characters, and he does favor the shadow side of his characters: that which cannot be said interests him most. The title is intriguing, and I wondered if the conceit of stories about mothers and sons could sustain a collection. Indeed, it seemed almost accidental that each story happened to have a mother and happened to have a son. My guess is that he didn't set out to write a book about mothers and sons, but that he suddenly realized: oh my, look at that, a unifying motif.

I savored every story, especially the novella called The Long Winter which is the only story not set at least partially in Ireland, but rather in Spain. It's the wrenching tale of a young man whose mother disappears into the snowy fields one day. She has gone in search of alcohol, her family having staged a rather hasty intervention. Months pass before the snow melts and proper search for the body can begin. In the meantime the protagonist absorbs hard lessons about loss and longing. This sounds so sad, I know, but in each of these stories there is a strong and subtle feeling of reconciliation with the way things are, and--even in the story of the mother dealing with the shame of her son the priest who is about to be de-frocked--there is hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I left the other Colm Toibin book we were talking about under your doormat this morning.

See you soon!