Constraints and conflicts bred by family relations are vigorously dramatized in this first story collection from the Booker-nominated Dublin author (The Master, 2004, etc.).
In six brief stories and three longer ones, Tóibín presents a many-colored gallery of related souls, nowhere more arrestingly than in “The Use of Reason.” Narrated by an amoral career criminal—who has expanded his reach and complicated the problem of fencing his ill-gotten gains, by stealing a valuable Rembrandt—it’s an icy portrayal of a “bad son” whose implacable brutality extends to threatening his alcoholic, loose-tongued mother (“I’ll take action against you if I hear another word”). Elsewhere, Tóibín develops the volume’s binding theme, tenuously in the story of a former band singer whose son’s discovery of her old records triggers painful memories (“Famous Blue Raincoat”); more persuasively in the similar tale (“A Song”) of a working musician who attends a performance by the songstress mother who had abandoned him, years earlier, and in two stories (“A Journey,” “A Summer Job”) that contrast maternal self-sacrifice with spousal and filial exploitation and indifference. Tóibín’s range is best demonstrated in the sexual abuse story “A Priest in the Family” and in two moving novellas: the story of a hardworking widow’s efforts to rebuild her family’s fortunes, and her heartless son’s indifference to her sacrifices (“The Name of the Game”); and a beautiful tale of filial grief, sexual hunger and hard-won acceptance of mutability and loss, set in the Spanish Pyrenees (“A Long Winter”). Characterization, dialogue, controlled narrative and scenic description are expertly blended throughout, often to stunning emotional effect.
They’re grand storytellers, these Irish, and when he’s at his best, Mrs. Tóibín’s boy Colm is the equal of any of them.