Review

Mothers And Sons: Stories

by Colm Tóibín

There's little doubt that Irish culture holds in considerable
regard the ability to tell an absorbing tale. The country's
literature boasts a rich tradition of compelling short story
writers --- among them James Joyce, Frank O'Connor and the modern
master, William Trevor. Fresh from his acclaimed novel of the life
of Henry James, THE MASTER, Colm Tóibín, in his first
collection of short fiction, shows that he has the talent to
someday join their august company.

MOTHERS AND SONS recognizes that perhaps no other family
relationship is more fraught with the tension between intimacy and
distance than this one. In the thematically linked stories of this
collection, all but one of which are set in modern-day Ireland,
Tóibín chooses to emphasize the circumstances that
isolate mothers and sons and the failures of communication that
often make it impossible to bridge that gap.

The stories in MOTHERS AND SONS don't feature much in the way of
dramatic action and tend to be somewhat monochromatic in their tone
and pacing. What Tóibín offers that more than compensates
for these shortcomings is his gift for sharp and often painful
glimpses into the lives of characters struggling to deal with the
harsh reality life has handed them. Typical of these insights is
the one that appears at the conclusion of "A Journey," the shortest
story in the collection. There, Sally contemplates the grim scene
that confronts her when she returns home with her 20-year-old son
who's been hospitalized for depression, and enters the bedroom
where her husband lies crippled from a stroke. Examining herself in
the mirror and deciding from that glance to let her hair go gray,
Sally is "struck for a moment by a glimpse of a future in which she
would need to muster every ounce of selfishness she had."

Among the most poignant stories in the book is "Famous Blue
Raincoat." In it, a teenage boy discovers some albums recorded by a
Dublin folk-rock band in which his mother and late aunt sang in the
early '70s. Hoping to please his mother, he transfers the albums to
CDs, but instead evokes for her only the memories of her sister's
mysterious death. "Now, as the CD came to an end," Tóibín
writes, "she hoped she would never have to listen to it
again."

In "A Priest in the Family," Tóibín skillfully undermines
the clichéd portrayal of an aging Irish mother doting on her
son who has decided to join the priesthood. In its place, he offers
the story of Molly, still vigorous in her late 70s, as she drives a
car and works to master the Internet, but who's "not sure" she
believes in the power of prayer. When Molly learns that her son
Frank, a local parish priest, is about to go on trial for sexual
abuse of some former students, the tragic circumstances provide
them with an opportunity for a kind of reconciliation.

The collection's final story, the novella-length "A Long Winter,"
is the only one that doesn't take place in Ireland. Set in a
village in Spain's Pyrenees Mountains, it chronicles the
disappearance of a woman who abandons her unnamed husband and son
Miquel, when the husband resorts to harsh measures to halt her
problem drinking. She is caught in a blizzard that blows into the
region a few hours after she leaves home on foot, and most of the
story recounts Miquel's search for her, alternating between the
fading hope that she will be found alive and his fear that her body
finally will be discovered, devoured by vultures, when the snow
melts.

In each of these stories, Tóibín's prose is controlled
and burnished. Only a mature, self-assured writer would launch the
first story in the collection, "The Use of Reason," with sentences
like these --- repetitive, and yet brilliant in their repetition:
"The city was a great emptiness. He looked out from the balcony of
one of the top flats on Charlemont Street. The wide waste ground
below him was empty. He closed his eyes and thought about the other
flats on this floor, most of them empty now in the afternoon, just
as the little bare bathrooms were empty and the open stairwells
were empty."

At the midpoint of his career, Colm Tóibín has
demonstrated his ability to master a variety of literary forms.
With MOTHERS AND SONS, readers can add the short story to that list
and can only look forward to the next offering of this accomplished
author.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 7, 2011

Mothers And Sons: Stories
by Colm Tóibín

  • Publication Date: January 2, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1416534652
  • ISBN-13: 9781416534655