Since the publication of his first novel, The South (1990), Colm Tóibìn has established himself as a writer with an unusual grasp of lives lived in the shadow of history, of both the national and familial variety. What his fictions tend to lack in hopeful endings and other easy consolations, they make up for in keen empathy, gorgeous prose, and a certain recurring wanderlust. Tóibìn is a rooted cosmopolitan, ranging widely in period and geography while generally wearing his Irishness—sometimes subtly, and always unsentimentally—on his sleeve.
The South, about a 1950s Anglo-Irish woman who leaves her husband to take up with a Catalan painter in a small village in the Pyrenees, was hailed by some as a perfect novel for the eve of European Unification, transplanting Irish stories—and Irish conflicts—to broader European soil. The Heather Blazing (1992), about a conservative Irish judge at odds with his children, took these themes of tradition and cultural renovation to the present, while The Sign of the Cross (1994), one of Tóibìn’s several books of reportage, connected the nationalism-tinged religion of Spain, Poland, and elsewhere in Catholic Europe with that of his own Wexford childhood. Even The Master (2004), Tóibìn’s magnificent portrait of Henry James as an artist who ruthlessly suppressed his own emotional life in order to be more fully alive to that of his characters, affords a brief glimpse of the James family’s ancestral homeland, a place of preening local gentry, coolly brutal colonial overlords, and terrifying squalor and “sullenness.”
Mothers and Sons, a collection of nine powerfully understated stories set mostly in Ireland, may seem a modest offering after the remarkable ambition of The Master. Here the strangled intimacies of family life aren’t a condition to be overcome for the sake of art but an unavoidable fact no less painful for being utterly ordinary. Tóibìn is a master at diagramming loss and emotional dysfunction with gorgeously minimal means, hardly a word or a gesture wasted. In general, not much happens here: Tóibìn has his unblinking eye on how people hold themselves together after something happens—a death, a disappearance, the revelation of a shameful secret.
The Ireland in these stories is a place of cold tea, sodden beach raves, fading small-town businesses, and country pubs packed with “outsiders” from the city who spill beer on the uilleann pipes. It’s a place where men with names like Mousey Furlong have given up peddling junk from horse-drawn carts in favor of selling heroin to kids and fencing stolen Rembrandts to Dutchmen—“an unnatural state of affairs,” laments the coolly psychopathic narrator of the “The Use of Reason,” the stiletto-sharp opening story. Well, maybe. But Tóibìn, who worked as a journalist before turning to fiction, is hardly after anything so easy as prodding the underbelly of a Celtic Tiger grown fat on the wages of European unification and globalization. If his people have left the island at all, it’s usually only to escape an …