George O’Brien, review of Mothers and Sons by Colm Tóibín, in The Irish Times (26 Aug. 2006)

Details: George O’Brien, ‘Cutting the apron strings’, review of Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons, in The Irish Times (26 Aug. 2006), p.11. Sub-heading: Short Stories - Colm Tóibín’s first collection of short stories explores change, loss and getting through.]

Readers who remember the formidable mothers of such Colm Tóibín novels as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship will not be surprised by the title and theme of his first collection of short stories. Indeed, the redoubtable Mrs Devereux in the latter novel suggests herself as a prototype of some of the mothers here - Molly, in “A Priest in the Family”, for instance, who faces down public opinion and private counsel to stand by her son, Fr. Frank, as he is about to go on trial for child abuse; or Nancy, the widow who successfully modernises her husband’s failing business in The “Name of the Game”.

In these stories, as well as in the somewhat less substantial “A Journey” and in the grandmother-grandson relationship in “A Summer Job”, mothers are pictures of solidarity and continuity, as well as being obvious care-givers and transmitters of inheritance - although in “A Summer Job” that picture is nicely complicated by the actual mother’s conventional attitudes to tradition and obligation. Generally, though, whether dealing with a celebrated rendering of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” (in the story of that name) or a nerve-wracking car ride in “A Journey”, it is through mothers that the present can attempt to accommodate the past, that the challenge to maintain family integrity is maintained and the myriad little strands of connective tissue between world and home are kept alive. This last is particularly vivid in “The Name of the Game”, with its wonderfully satisfying and engrossing treatment of money and neighbourliness in a provincial town.

Not that all the mothers here are equal to the challenges their lives contain. The mother who so powerfully sings a traditional air in “A Song” - the book’s undoubted gift to future anthologies of short stories - has behaved rather less impressively in the family sphere, perhaps as a consequence of the very passion she brings to the singing. The mother of the successful criminal in “The Use of Reason”, the collection’s least engaging story, is a boozy nuisance. And most affecting of all is the mother who leaves home in “A Long Winter”, the superb novella with which Mothers and Sons closes. Set in the unforgiving landscape of the snowy Pyrenees, this story is a marvellous study of longing and loss, as admirable and enjoyable for the skill of its timing and development as for the depth of its understated sympathies.

But even those mothers with a stubborn capacity to get on with things, do so with an acute sense of struggle. Nancy, in “The Name of the Game”, finds herself every so often not knowing what to think and trying her best not to be overcome by being in charge and by having to change. There’s a tension between the ostensible authority of the mother’s role and the misgivings and mistakes of the person trying to live up to that role. This tension is, in a sense, another variation on the author’s long-standing concern with the interactions and disconnections between the rather stiff, pro-forma character of social conduct and the much more nuanced and fluid world of private life. Here, in addition, symbolic power proves to be at odds with practical preoccupations, and the cultural resonances of motherhood are beside the point of its secular, personal reality.

The full weight and character of the complications of mothering, which in these stories is usually grounded in experiences of loss and abandonment, is what the existence of sons brings sharply into focus. Sons are different. Fergal, the protagonist of the somewhat awkwardly structured “Three Friends”, attends his mother’s funeral, then a couple of nights later goes to a beach rave; the story concludes with the possibility of his taking a new lover. Elsewhere, the emergence of difference is less arresting but equally clear-cut, revealing again and again that the circumstances that have brought mother and son together are also the ones from which their eventual apartness issues. The eventual dissolution of the binding ties of nature and nurture are obviously unnerving to both parties, and the freedom which sometimes results from it is typically conceived of as less a liberation than a fresh challenge. Yet the dissolution itself is also another form of going on, a further revision of family structures which have already been subjected to radical disruption, so that the stories end not with anything as dramatic as breakdown or break-up, but rather with a suggestion of unexpected, untraditional alignments of power within the family.

This suggestion receives more support from the shape of the stories than from reliance on the epiphany or any other related trick of the short story-writing trade. In fact, the length, wealth of incident and large number of characters typical of these stories make them the opposite of the Joycean, modernist conception of the form. Instead, they draw on an earlier, Jamesian model, and if they wisely show no particular interest in reproducing the master’s high-gloss manner, they do share some of his interests in inheritance, succession, singular intelligences and the moral cost of experience. Stories such as these, which cover a good deal of space and time, find it difficult to avoid being episodic, and to an extent that is also the case with Mothers and Sons, suggesting that this form, unlike the novel, is one that the author has yet to make quite his own. But such a reservation hardly detracts from the vividness of the characters, the spare clarity of the style, and the deceptive complexity with which “The Name of the Game”, “A Summer Job” and “A Long Winter”, in particular, negotiate the perennial themes of change and loss and getting through.

[George O’Brien is academic director of the Irish Studies Summer School at Trinity College and professor of English at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Mothers and Sons By Colm Tóibín Picador, 298pp.]

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