Archive for the ‘Toibin, Colm (4)’ Category

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

August 26, 2013

Purchased at

Purchased at

I arrived at my reading of The Testament of Mary bearing two significant pieces of mental baggage and it is only fair to reveal them, since both undoubtedly effected my impression:

I am not a religious person and generally don’t react well to fiction based on religious themes — Marilynne Robinson is a good example of an excellent novelist who falls victim to this bias for me. So despite my appreciation of Colm Toibin (this is the fourth of his works reviewed here and I have read others pre-blog), I was not inclined to buy this 104-page novella when it appeared in October last year.

On the positive side, I was intrigued by the project’s history. The Testament of Mary began literary life as a monologue at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival. Toibin adapted that script for this volume. The dramatic version also was mounted on Broadway earlier this year, to decidedly mixed results — while it garnered three Tony nominations (including Best Play), small audiences meant it closed after only two weeks of a scheduled 12-week run.

booker logo The novel opens in Ephesus where Mary is living in exile years after the Crucifixion. Two of the disciples are serving as her protectors/keepers/jailers, each probing her experiences for inclusion in their particular Gospel. The conceit of the monologue is that it is Mary’s real thoughts on her life as the mother of Jesus — she has no intention of sharing those with her guardians.

That supplies the most distinctive feature of The Testament of Mary — Toibin’s Mary is very much a cranky, grieving mother, not the Blessed Virgin of conventional religion. She is adamant in seeing herself as the mother of a child named Jesus, not the Mother of the Son of God. (That helps to explain the two-week New York theatre run: the monologue not only does not appeal to the non-religious, believers find it anti-Christian.)

Consider for example her characterization of the “misfits” her son attracts, known as disciples to the faithful:

But I should have paid more attention to that time before he left, to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came, it was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen, or the garden; something of their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them, made me want to serve the food, or water, or whatever, and then disappear before I had heard a single word of what they were talking about. They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and then the talk was too loud; there were too many of them talking at the same time, or, even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge, and I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbour who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned the young men would have dispersed or that my son would have stopped speaking.

I suspect even more upsetting to Christian believers is Mary’s reaction when her two guardian disciples explain the virgin birth to her:

I must have looked perplexed.

‘She does not understand,’ he said to his companion, and it was true. I did not understand.

‘He was indeed the Son of God,’ he said.

And then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son’s conception as the other nodded and encouraged him. I barely listened. I had other things to do. I know what happened. I know that my own happiness in those first months when I was with child felt strange and special, that I lived in a way that was different, that I often stood at the window and looked at the light outside and felt that the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined. Later, I learned that this is how we all prepare ourselves to give birth and to nurture, that it comes from the body itself and makes its way into the spirit and it does not seem ordinary. So I smiled when they spoke because they seemed to know something that was true about the light and grace that came at that time and for once I liked how eager and sure they were.

The Testament of Mary revisits a number of events in Christ’s life, seen through the eyes of that unconventional version of Mary — the marriage at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. In all of them, Mary’s main interest is an attempt to get Jesus away from his preaching and so-called miracles and back to a simple, safe life in Nazareth.

As a literary exercise, that approach to Mary had enough curiosity value to make the 75 minutes it took to read the book worthwhile. I felt throughout that the stage version would probably have been a better experience — a talented actress would use intonation and gesture to add depth to the text. Anyone who is interested in the project might want to consider the audio version of the book which is narrated by Meryl Streep, since I suspect it would capture at least part of that dramatic value.

I’ll admit that I would never have picked up The Testament of Mary if it had not been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The two pieces of mental baggage I confessed to at the start of this review were augmented by a third: What could a literary jury have found in this book that caused them to rate it as one of the 13 best novels published this year?

After reading the book, I have no answer to that question. Toibin’s considerable literary skills are certainly apparent in the testament, but at best it is an unorthodox look at a story that has spawned countless other versions (and some very fine art). I can understand why it would provoke outrage in some but that hardly seems to warrant a prize-listing. In the final analysis, I am left scratching my head wondering just whom the author thought his audience would be.


The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

February 21, 2011

Purchased at

Colm Toibin is a personal favorite (see previous reviews of Mothers and Sons and Brooklyn here) so I was delighted to see that a new short story collection, The Empty Family, was on tap for 2011 — and I was not disappointed with the results. I understand that short stories are not to everyone’s taste, but if you have any interest in the genre this is an excellent addition.

Toibin takes an unusual approach to his short story collections, at least in my experience. They are not linked in the sense that they feature the same characters or surroundings, a relatively common device. Rather, his collections take themes (“mothers and sons” or, as in this case, “empty families”) and use that as a link for the stories. I think I am more inclined to short stories than many readers are; I’ll admit that Toibin’s approach of linking an underlying theme, but using widely varied settings, makes his collections even more interesting to me.

The Empty Family, however, has another continuing theme which adds even more interest to the collection. As the stories unfold, the central character is returning to a “home” or place of previous experience — Ireland or Barcelona — which, in addition to the missing family, adds a second layer of reminiscence to the experience.

Let me focus on the title story where an Irish imigrant to the United States (San Francisco was his home there) has returned “home” to the land of his birth and upbringing. Toibin introduces the concept:

I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on the old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky.

I have come back here. In all the years, I made sure the electricity bill was paid and the phone remained connected and the place was clean and dusted. And the neighbour who took care of things, Rita’s daughter, opened the house for the postman or the courier when I sent books or paintings or photographs I had bought, sometimes by FedEx as though it were urgent that they would arrive since I could not.

Since I would not.

This space I would walk in now has been my dream space; the mild sound of the wind on the days like this has been my dream sound.

You must know that I am back here.

Toibin fills this in with memories of his time in San Francisco:

At Point Reyes there was a long beach and some dunes and then the passionate and merciless sea, too rough and unpredictable for surfers and even paddlers. The warnings told you not to walk too close, that a wave could come from nowhere with a powerful undertow. There were no lifeguards. This was the Pacific Ocean at its most relentless and stark, and I stood there Saturday after Saturday, putting up with the wind, moving as carefully as I could on the edges of the shore, watching each wave crash towards me and dissolve in a slurp of undertow.

I missed home.

I missed home. I went out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home.

And what is home?

Home was also two houses that they left me when they died and that I sold at the very height of the boom in this small strange country when the prices rose as though they were Icaraus, the son of Daedalus, warned by his father not to fly so close to the sun or too close to the sea, Icarus who ignored the warning and whose wings were melted by the sun’s bright heat. The proceeds from those two houses have left me free, as though the word means anything, so that no matter how long I live I will not have to work again. And maybe I will not have to worry either, although that now sounds like a sour joke but one that maybe I can laugh at too as days go by.

I will join them in one of those graves. There is space left for me.

Yes, that is a lot of quotes and not much interpretation from the reviewer, but it is a summary of the strengths of these stories. Toibin is a master wordsmith when it comes to evoking memories and, in the Irish stories in this book, that is exactly what he does. The narrator has left Ireland, but part of him — a large part — remains there — and in the best stories he (or she) has returned. They are exceptional examples of the genre.

My own favorite is “Two Women”, the story of a movie set designer who has returned to Ireland from the United States on a project. I am not even going to try to describe it — suffice to say, it is one of the best short stories that I have ever read. If you like Toibin and the way that he can capture moments, I am quite sure that you will share my opinion (which is why I am not attempting an evaluation).

The Barcelona stories in this collection did not land quite as well with me. There is nothing wrong with them but Toibin uses them to explore various homosexual relationships and, for this reader at least, they did not share the power that the Irish stories have — that is a comment based more on my interests than it is on the strength of the stories.

Short stories are not for everyone but, if you appreciate the genre, this is a particularly good collection. Toibin has the ability to take his substantial skill and make it work in the shorter form. In this collection, the central theme of people who are contemplating their “empty families” has been developed fully through a number of different lenses — while not every story succeeds, there is no doubt that most do. If you appreciate good writing, this is a collection that should not be missed.

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

May 27, 2009

toibin Imagine a fictional heroine who is the embodiment of A Good Person, with only one minor flaw — honest, hard-working, kindly, intelligent and so on. Her flaw? Whenever she is faced with conflict, she always opts for the path of least resistance, often letting others make her choice for her. What happens to her?

Hang on, you say. Fiction is littered with such heroines. Molly Theale in Henry James The Wings of the Dove. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. A whole gallery of young women in the fiction of Jane Austen. The answer is obvious: an evil person comes along, gains her trust, exploits her and the result is ruin.

Okay, let’s add another assumption — take evil out of the equation. Every person our character comes in close contact with does his or her best to be as decent as possible and act in the interests of our heroine. Now what’s the result?

Eilis Lacey is just such a heroine in Colm Toibin’s new novel, Brooklyn. And he has set himself the daunting challenge of creating a supporting cast in which evil — or even simply bad will — plays no part. The result is an intriguing, if somewhat frustrating, book.

We meet Eilis in Toibin’s familiar territory of Enniscorthy, southern Ireland, around 1950. The post-war years have not been economically kind to the town and her three brothers have already headed to England to seek work. Left behind in the family cottage are her aging mother, her older sister Rose (who is prettier, more sociable and more employable than Eilis) and our heroine. Eilis works Sundays in the only shop in town that is open that day (and does good work) but fulltime employment is not on the horizon.

Toibin wastes little time in setting his challenge in motion. Rose returns from the golf course to announce that Father Flood, an Irish priest now residing in America, will be coming for a visit. Eilis soon figures out that it has already been decided without consulting her that she will emigrate to America, Brooklyn to be exact.

A manipulative sister and an equally manipulative priest exploiting our heroine? Quite the opposite:

One evening, when Rose invited her into her room so that she could choose some pieces of jewellery to bring with her, something new occurred to Eilis that surprised her by its force and clarity. Rose was thirty now, and since it was obvious that their mother could never be left to live alone, not merely because her pension was small but because she would be too lonely without any of them, Eilis’s going, which Rose had organized so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry. She would have to stay with her mother, living as she was now, working in Davis’s office, playing golf at the weekends and on summer evenings. Rose, she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family.

Father Flood proves equally reliable, finding Eilis employment as a sales assistant in a department store (but with the hope of perhaps getting promoted to the office), a nearby room in a boarding house for single Irish women and the kind of immigration documentation that would be required to pass through Ellis Island and into America.

Toibin cannot resist having some fun with Eilis’s voyage in third class, introducing an American berth-mate whom the reader is certain will turn into an ugly American cliche — but she too looks after Eilis throughout the voyage, even selecting her clothes and makeup so as to attract minimum attention from the immigration officers.

Things are not totally pleasant in Brooklyn (homesickness is definitely an issue) but neither are they miserable. Eilis’s employer is more than decent; her landlady bumps her up the priority list at the boarding house into the best room in the house. Father Flood has organized Friday dances at the local parish church and Eilis reluctantly attends (she does a lot of things reluctantly, it has to be said) and eventually is taken up by Tony, an Italian who has snuck over to the Irish church and become entranced with her.

Various minor conflicts have arisen along the way and Eilis has consistently taken the path of least resistance. Surely, now, the author will abandon this conceit and Tony will prove to be an utter rogue. He does not and becomes yet another character who wants to contribute to what is best for Eilis.

We are about two-thirds of the way through the book at this point, due for a major conflict and one does in fact arise. Toibin has written himself into a bit of a box at this stage. Is everyone in the book still going to be so damn decent? Will Eilis ever actually take a risk and make a considered decision? Good fiction depends on escalating, not avoiding, conflict. How is the author going to end this thing?

Alas, this reviewer has written himself into a similar box because to supply answers to those questions would be a terrible spoiler. From here on, you are on your own.

I like Toibin as an author and I very much liked this book, but that endorsement does come with some caveats. Toibin has always preferred the contemplative to the active and does carry it to an extreme in this novel. Good as she is, Eilis is a frustrating character and it is hard not to wonder: “Won’t she ever actually do something?”

Toibin is best known for his last novel, the award-winning The Master, his imagination of the life of Henry James, and Brooklyn is certainly not as ambitious a work as that one. In many ways, it is an expansion of some of the stories in his short story collection, Mothers and Sons (reviewed here), where he also explores what happens to passive characters, albeit in less depth.

I also want to emphasize that there is much more to this book than the theme on which I have chosen to concentrate. The book does consider the mid-century Irish diaspora, the situation of immigrants in New York at that time and there is some exploration of racial issues that are arising in the America of the day. Other reviews have addressed these themes (I am rather late into the game on this book) and I have not bothered to repeat them.

If you have not yet read any of Toibin’s books, I would not start with this one — depending on your tastes, The Master, Mothers and Sons or The Blackwater Lightship would all be better candidates. If you have read and liked some of his previous work, I would certainly recommend Brooklyn — while it is not as ambitious has some of his previous books, it is very good writing from an author who knows what good writing is about. A somewhat unconventional novel, it is also a rewarding one.

Mothers and Sons, by Colm Toibin

February 20, 2009

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.

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