Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin


toibin21Colm Toibin has a new novel — Brooklyn — that is due out this spring.  I have read The Blackwater Lightship and The Master (but none of his non-fiction) and admired them both.  So in eager anticipation of the new novel I was trolling about online booksellers, trying to figure out if Brooklyn has a convenient North American release date (it does — May 5,  just as in the UK) when what should pop up.  Mothers and Sons, his last book, published in 2006, a collection of nine stories, being remaindered for $6.64 in the original hardcover edition.

Readers of my last post will know I am a sucker for well-made volumes whatever the price.  I am equally a sucker for bargains.  A hardcover volume at $6.64 (you’ll note from the illustration that I can’t resist posting the discount image) means that for the price of a single issue of The New Yorker I could acquire an entire hardcover book — only one story out of nine would have to be worthwhile.  For readers with access to, the bargain is still available at last checking.

And what a bargain it turned out to be.  All but one of these stories (actually, by my definition, eight stories and one novella) have been published on the other side of the Atlantic — for those of us on the west side, these are new works.  I know some of Toibin’s short work from other periodicals.  I am delighted to report that his short fiction is every bit as good as all the rest of his work.

(If you want an example of how good his periodical non-fiction work is, check out this article from the New York Review of Books, comparing Obama and James Baldwin — it says more about the new president than most of the journalism I have read.  And thanks to Trevor from theMookseandtheGripes for reminding me of it.  It is a very good piece of journalism.)

The nine pieces, as the title of the book suggests, are linked by the common image of mothers and sons.  But just as Henry James, subject of The Master and a number of other Toibin pieces, used a common image to create a framework for other exploration, Toibin uses the mother-son framework to explore a much broader range of emotions and issues.  If you know the author, you won’t be surprised to discover that while the mother-son bond is present in all the stories, it is not portrayed in the conventional, cloying sense — Toibin acknowledges the bond but mainly he explores the notion of what happens with the “disconnect” that is so often a part of real life.

In the first story, ‘The Use of Reason’, for example, we meet an Irish crook who has just pulled off an amazing art theft, including Rembrandt’s Painting of an Old Woman, a Gainsborough and two Guardis.  He is pretty much a common thief, albeit a tough one, and needless to say fencing these pieces, worth millions, is a bit of an issue.

His mother, ever since the death of his equally criminal brother, has become a common drunk, cadging drinks however she can.  As our hero discovers only too soon, the Guard have figured out that buying his mother drinks (since she believes that it is her son’s reputation for toughness that protects her) produces some very useful information.  The plot unfolds in a most satisfying manner.

‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (yes, the title comes from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name — I think I have five versions, but there may be more) explores the relationship between mother and son from a completely different angle.  Back in her youth in the 1960s (I did grow up then, which may explain why I have five versions of this song), Lisa was involved in an Irish pop group with her sister and a couple of friends.  They made three albums — one of them made it into the Top Thirty, with her sister’s version of Famous Blue Raincoat the key song.

She’s kept those albums in a box in the garage ever since, resolutely refusing to listen to them again because of the memories they would raise.  She notices her son, Luke, has not only discovered the box, he has removed the albums — and discovers he has plans to burn a CD that would, of course, feature Famous Blue Raincoat.  It sends her back on a painful series of memories.  She can’t tell her son not to proceed with the project; she wishes he would not.

Luke was all competence and pride as he set up the disc in the player.

“I put the best track first,” he said, “and I had space at the end so I put it on a second time.”

She knew what it would be, and, as Julie’s voice sang the opening verse of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ with no ornamentation or instrumental accompaniment, Lisa saw her face that day when she was dead, the features all filled with life, ready to start an argument, enjoying her own lovely authority.  Soon, when the echo effect was added and the cello came in and Lisa’s voice appeared, she was glad she had spent the years not hearing this music.

I’ve probably spoiled two stories already, so I won’t spoil the rest.  From explorations of failed priest brothers to the awakening of homosexual feelings, Toibin does a most impressive job of exploring how the real world starts to intude on and disrupt — but never fully break — the bond between mothers and sons.

The novella, A Long Winter, was for me the least successful — but still entirely worthwhile — of the nine parts of this volume.  Unlike all the rest, it is set in Spain.  The brother of the son, Miquel, is about to head off for his military service.  As part of the fallout, Miquel discovers his mother has become an alcoholic — the action of the story starts when his father pours her wine out the door.  While the mother-son bond is certainly central to this work, the novella is actually much more about the strains in the father-son relationship.  It works, but not as well as the other eight stories.

Is Mother and Sons up to Toibin’s best novels?  For me, probably not — but then I will admit that I am much more inclined to novels than to short stories.  It is definitely a volume worth reading.  And if you can cash in on the remainder bargain — and even if you can’t — it is a volume that offers full value.  The description of Brooklyn says that it is a family saga which starts in Ireland, moves to Brooklyn and then returns.  I can’t think of a better way to get ready for it than reading Mothers and Sons.

14 Responses to “Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin”

  1. Trevor Says:

    It’s only partially true that you haven’t read any of his nonfiction, Kevin. He’s who wrote that exceptional piece on Obama and James Baldwin for the New York Review of Books.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Trevor. I cheated and edited back the post to include a reference. It is a great piece of work that explains a lot about the new president.


  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I have this book in paperback but haven’t read it yet. I never seem to get around to short story collections. I saw Colm Toibin at the Edinburgh Literature Festival last year, appearing with Patrick McGrath. It was a fantastic hour.


  4. Colette Jones Says:

    And I see a “possibly related post” flagged up Lizzy Siddal’s Edinburgh Book Festival post 5. If it wasn’t related before, it is related now, as I was with her at the event, as well as a few other book lovers you will have come across in various places. I forgot to mention how good the company was too!


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did read Lizzy’s post of the event and later review of Mothers and Sons. I hadn’t read it before posting my review — Toibin’s emphasis that he prefers to leave each story “unresolved” so that the reader will go on thinking (indeed must go on thinking) is worth repeating. Again much like James, he is very good at describing a situation and its potential implications and then leaving the reader to contemplate the possible consequences and outcomes. I particularly liked these stories for just that reason.


  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting, I’ve read The Heather Blazing and The South, both of which I would recommend, but none of the works you’ve read. The Heather Blazing in particular I thought a genuinely interesting and in places challenging work.

    I may take a look at this collection for my next Toibin, though I already own (but haven’t yet read) The Story of the Night and his non-fiction work Bad Blood. Still, this sounds tempting.


  7. alison Says:

    I am definitely going to read Toibin’s essay on the president, thanks for mentioning it, it sounds great. I’m a big fan of his writing (Toibin, have yet to read Obama’s books) and have Mothers and Sons sitting in a drawer, so now no more excuses not to put it on the top of the reading pile. Never read The Master )yet) but thought Blackwater Lightship was very affecting. I’ve heard him read from the Story of the Night – he’s a wonderful performer as well as writer.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Alison:

    I liked Mothers and Sons a lot, but not as much as The Master. Having said that, novels and short stories are different genres — one of the things about this book is that you can have it handy for when you only have a half-hour to read and dip into a story.

    I’m not a big non-fiction reader except for periodicals, but I’ll admit the Toibin work I have seen has impressed me enough that I may investigate some of his non-fiction work. I am quite intrigued by the descriptions of Brooklyn and know that John Self at theasylum has read an advance copy — can’t wait to see his review because at this stage it is a book that I much anticipating.


  9. Isabel Says:

    Please check my blog for an award:


  10. lizzysiddal Says:

    Which was your favourite? Which, if any, made you shudder?


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lizzy: My favorite was Famous Blue Raincoat, but I think that says more about me and my background than it does about how the story might appeal to someone else. As someone of the same vintage as Lisa (the mother in the story), I found Toibin’s exploration of how some of us Baby Boomers want to (literally in this case) box up elements from our past to be most engaging — the drama that he adds to that made the story particularly good for me.

    I wouldn’t say any story made me shudder. A Long Winter was probably the saddest and most frustrating, although A Priest in the Family would also be in the running. I did find that I was more interested in the stories (including The Use of Reason) where the author devotes more attention to the ambiguity of the relationship — and the impact that has on other parts of life for both mother and son.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Also, Lizzy, your comment reminded me that I’ve been meaning to add your site to by my Blogroll, particularly since you review so many Canadian books. I’ve taken the liberty of doing that — hope you don’t mind.


  13. Simon S Says:

    I have this very high in my TBR pile and think that actually its going to now have to be read before the week is out. Hadnt heard much about Toibin until the end of last year when suddenly lots and lots of people were recommending I read him and these recommendations have kept coming this year too. Brilliant review.


  14. The Breakwater House, by Pascale Quiviger « KevinfromCanada Says:

    […] over a year ago in the early days of this blog, I reviewed Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a very good collection of short stories by an exceptional […]


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