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Fractured Families in 5 Powerful Books by Colm Tóibín

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© Copyright Colm Tóibín

Although he’s an exceptionally prolific author, equally at home as a novelist, short story writer and essayist, Colm Tóibín’s reputation rests largely on the critical success of two books, The Master and Brooklyn. The former was an audacious reimagining of a crucial five year period in the life of Henry James that bagged Tóibín the prestigious – and lucrative – International Dublin Literary Award. Meanwhile, the deceptively low-key Brooklyn, in which a young woman leaves Ireland for America in the 1950s only to find that her homeland exerts an inexorable pull, won the Costa Novel Award and was successfully adapted for the big screen with Saoirse Ronan in the starring role.

Given that Tóibín’s 2012 collection of essays on writers and their families was entitled New Ways to Kill Your Mother, it’s hardly surprising that the author was drawn to Aeschylus’ Oresteia – where matricide looms large – as the subject matter for his latest novel, House of Names. In the grisly Greek tragedy, King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to placate the goddess Artemis, before setting sail to fight the Trojan War, but this abhorrent act has far-reaching consequences both for himself and for his remaining family.

Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra will go on to avenge Iphigenia’s death by murdering her husband, while she in turn will lose her life at the hands of her son, Orestes who is ably goaded on by his sister Electra. In Tóibín’s gripping version of the tale, however, the gods have been side-lined and his interest is less in the tension between human freedom and divine will than in the psychology of entrenched family violence that spells the fall of the house of Atreus.

Here are five more works of fiction in which Tóibín turns his gimlet eye towards troubled families and mothers who are not to be messed with.

The Blackwater Lightship

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is an astute multigenerational portrait of a family navigating the gulf between a modern, secular Ireland and one still sloughing off the vestiges of age-old Catholic conservatism. Helen O’Doherty is a thirty-something school principal living in a desirable, middle-class Dublin suburb with her husband and two children. When she discovers that her brother Declan is dying of Aids, she takes it upon herself to join him in a decaying coastal house in Wexford where she will act as de facto nurse alongside her estranged mother Lily, grandmother Dora and two of Declan’s friends. This quiet, discreet novel explores themes of repression, loss and damaged family relationships with great sensitivity and is well worth revisiting in 2017 – two years after the Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage.

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Mothers and Sons

As the title suggests, mother/son relationships, ranging from the mildly strained to the downright toxic, are very much to the fore in Tóibín’s first short story collection which is threaded with a sense of sorrow and regret. Highlights include ‘A Summer Job’, where a perplexed mother realises she will never truly understand her forbiddingly self-possessed teenage child, and ‘A Priest in the Family’ in which a pensioner’s belated discovery of the sexual allegations against her cleric son prompts her to respond – or fail to respond – in unexpected, yet wholly credible ways. ‘The Name of the Game’, meanwhile, takes a seemingly unpromising storyline – a widow transforming her struggling corner shop into a thriving take away – and from it creates an unforgettable portrait of flinty maternal love.

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Nora Webster

Less a sequel than a companion piece to Brooklyn, Nora Webster sees Tóibín return to his native Wexford, this time in the late 1960s, where his eponymous protagonist Nora finds herself grieving the loss of her husband, Maurice, to cancer and struggling to console her two youngest children, Conor and Donal.

If Brooklyn, in which Eilis Lacey leaves Ireland for a better life in New York, is chiefly concerned with a literal form of exile, Nora’s sense of displacement is metaphorical. Although she will never leave Wexford, her widowhood, steely self-composure and closely-guarded independence put her at one remove both from her own children and from a society still decades away from accommodating strong, intelligent women.

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The Empty Family

In this exquisitely melancholy collection of stories – arguably the author’s finest work to date – Tóibín focusses on the experiences of characters grappling with difficult emotions arising from fractured family relationships and grave personal loss. In ‘One Minus One’ an Irish expat in Texas has an imaginary conversation with a former lover about his late mother and a childhood defined by emotional neglect; in ‘The New Spain’ a woman, in exile in Britain, returns to her native Barcelona in the wake of Franco’s death and finds her estrangement from her parents is underscored by the death of her beloved grandmother. And the plangent ‘The Colour of Shadows’ sees a gay man visit the terminally-ill aunt who raised him, only to realise that the gulf between past and present is wholly unbridgeable. Rather than succumb to despair, however, the characters in this fine collection are severely bruised but rarely broken by their changing fortunes.

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The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary started life as a one-woman stage play in the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival before being expanded into a Booker-prize shortlisted novella of considerable power and lyricism. In it, an elderly Mary, mother of Jesus, is holed up in a small house in Ephesus where she has been called upon to give an account of the life and death of her son. But rather than champion Christ as the Light of the World, as her interviewers would hope, the story she tells is one of ambivalence, bemusement and, at times, thinly veiled contempt. Not only does this world-weary Mary disapprove of Jesus’ followers – a motley crew of ‘fools, twitchers, malcontents [and] stammerers’ – she sees her son as a proto-celebrity whose stardom not only jeopardised his relationship with her but with his own authentic self. The saint of Christian tradition might be characterised by her great piety and limitless love, but Tóibín’s grieving Mary – prickly, flawed and iconoclastic – is endearingly real and all too human. 

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Daragh is an editor and freelance writer based in Dublin

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