Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mothers and Sons

This is Colm Toibin’s first book of short stories, and includes a novella in the end, "A Long Winter". Two of the stories here, "A Song", about a chance meeting between an estranged mother-son duo, and "Famous Blue Raincoat", which is the only story that is not about mothers and sons, but two sisters, had previously appeared in the Guardian, where I had read them. I have been reading a lot of Toibin's fiction recently, and Mothers and Sons is easily the best book to emerge from his stable. This, and his last, The Master, indicate a steady progression in the skills of an already deeply gifted observer of human frailty.

In "Three Friends", Fergus has just lost his mother to illness, and the story opens with his preparation for her funeral. Attending the funeral as if in a stupor, Fergus is forced by three of his friends to accompany them to a rave party later that night. Toibin slowly builds the shift in mood, from Fergus's reluctance to attend a pleasure trip to the point when deep in the throes of ecstasy (and Ecstasy), he undertakes an intense sexual experience inside the swimming pool with one of his friends, Mick. With another writer, the switch from grief to pleasure might have turned tacky, but Toibin's development is wholesome, making the reader want Mick to exert his full body weight on Fergus, a scene of mutual masturbation that breathes life into Fergus and the story.

In "A Long Winter", an alcoholic mother walks out on her family one morning only to be caught up in a blanket of snow. Her husband and son must then negotiate a truce with others in the village to help them search for her. The novella develops across several weeks, with ultimately a kitchen boy, an orphan, being brought in to take care of the household. Even as the mother's dead body is never discovered, Toibin, through scenes of conflict and tenderness, denotes the astonishing yet welcome way the orphan comes to displace the lady of the house.

Expectations turned false is a theme that runs through many stories. In "A Summer Job", a woman tries to bring her son to feel something for his grandmother with whom he spends the summers. The old lady is, of course, crazy about her grandson, and there are scenes in which, publicly at least, he seems to return the emotion. However, his mother discovers, later in the story, that his loving exterior may after all be a facade. Similarly, in "A Journey", a mother is driving home her depressed son from the hospital. He, who had bound himself to her as a child, thinking of ways to impress her, has turned distant and refuses even to sit next to her in the front. Toibin declines to discuss the cause of his depression and lets the reader be pained by the heavy silences that have crept in between mother and son.

Mothers and Sons is a truly inspired collection, its pitch perfect. It is so good that one hopes Toibin will, if only sporadically, reserve his pregnant sentences for shorter fiction like he has done here for the first time.

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