Mothers and Sons

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Each of the nine stories in this beautifully written, intensely intimate collection centers on a transformative moment that alters the delicate balance of power between mother and son, or changes the way they perceive one another. With exquisite grace and eloquence, Tóibín writes of men and women bound by convention, by unspoken emotions, by the stronghold of the past. Many are trapped in lives they would not choose again, if they ever chose at...
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Each of the nine stories in this beautifully written, intensely intimate collection centers on a transformative moment that alters the delicate balance of power between mother and son, or changes the way they perceive one another. With exquisite grace and eloquence, Tóibín writes of men and women bound by convention, by unspoken emotions, by the stronghold of the past. Many are trapped in lives they would not choose again, if they ever chose at all.

A man buries his mother and converts his grief to desire in one night. A famous singer captivates an audience, yet cannot beguile her own estranged son. And in "A Long Winter," Colm Tóibín's finest piece of fiction to date, a young man searches for his mother in the snow-covered mountains where she has sought escape from the husband who controls and confines her.

Winner of numerous awards for his fifth novel, The Master -- including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award -- Tóibín brings to this stunning first collection an acute understanding of human frailty and longing. These are haunting, profoundly moving stories by a writer who is himself a master.
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Editorial Reviews

Pico Iyer
The short story is a craftsman’s form, and Toibin’s craft is immaculate. Not many writers in Britain and Ireland are working at this level of intensity and seriousness, with not a slack sentence in 270 pages and nothing shoddy or easily sardonic throughout. The short story also seems an ideal form for a writer much more interested in emotion, and the slow exposing of a character, than in action or community.
— The New York Times
Jeff Turrentine
Though he's not above gently tugging at heartstrings, he seems more interested in mapping the silent, awkward distance between his characters than in celebrating any sort of mystical connection. Like moons, the sons in this collection are caught in the powerful orbits of the women who birthed them; they spin and shine with what looks like self-determination, but they know they can never travel too far without being pulled back in.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Nine stories from the author of The Master, The Blackwater Lightship and three other novels explore what happens when mothers and sons confront one another as adults. The sons include a middle-aged petty criminal, a young alienated pub musician and a regular guy whose drug-fueled mourning takes him into new sexual territory. The mothers include a widow who married above her class, a woman whose son's depression hangs over her and her husband's lives and a woman whose son is a priest being charged with abuse. In "The Name of the Game," the widowed Nancy Sheridan finds herself saddled with three children and a debt-ridden supermarket. In "Famous Blue Raincoat," former-folk-rock sensation-turned-smalltime-photographer Lisa is distressed by her son Luke's interest in her band, but refuses to tread on his curiousity, which forces her to reconfront the band's painful end. Longing, frustrated expectations and an offhandedly gorgeous Ireland run steadily throughout except in the concluding, near-novella-length "A Long Winter," set in a Spanish village, and featuring Miguel, his younger brother, Jordi, and their mother, whose drinking may not be the only secret Miguel discovers during preparations for Jordi's departure for his military service. Wistful, touching and complex, these stories form a panoramic portrait of loss. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The mothers and sons in Toibin's superlative first collection resist the changes wrought by transformative events. With precise and poignant detail, Toibin, twice short-listed for the Booker Prize (for The Blackwater Lightship and The Master), reveals how they try to normalize their respective situations. In "A Priest in the Family," a mother, after learning of a heinous crime her son committed, forces herself to drink scalding tea to prove to herself that she could face anything. After a renowned singer performs a song for an audience that includes her estranged son ("A Song"), he immediately leaves, motivated by a desire to prove to himself the insignificance of the act. In "A Long Winter," Toibin's best and longest effort in the collection, a depressed mother unexpectedly walks off from her home and gets caught in a blizzard that marks the beginning of a tempestuous winter. The story traces her husband's and son's thoughts and habits while they wait for the spring thaw. Even though they and the reader know the mother's fate early, Toibin is able to craft a painfully unequivocal denouement. Recommended for most fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/06.]-David Doerrer, Library Journal Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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, T-ib'n 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, T-ib'n 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. T-ib'n'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 emotionaleffect. They're grand storytellers, these Irish, and when he's at his best, Mrs. T-ib'n's boy Colm is the equal of any of them. Agent: Peter Straus/Rogers, Coleridge & White, Ltd.
From the Publisher
"It's truly remarkable that a writer of Toibin's great felicity, immense seriousness and general large awareness — a writer so naturally gifted as a novelist — can deliver short stories of such subtle empathy and brilliance. He's dazzling."
— Richard Ford

"Tóibín is a writer of extraordinary emotional clarity....These are beautiful stories, beautifully crafted."

Literary Review (uk)

"Tóibín is a subtle, intelligent and deeply felt writer."

The Guardian

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771085321
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 1/1/2008
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Blackwater Lightship; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.


Colm Tóibín is a literary star of the "new" Ireland, the one -- as noted by National Public Radio's Jacki Lyman -- is short on whiskey and St. Patrick and long on cell phones, personal computers, and a stage set for economic opportunity. This is an Ireland where the people stop to cheer an author, yes, an author, whose latest novel has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, even though its key subject matter is the protagonist's struggle with his homosexuality.

"When I went down to get my groceries, people stopped their car and got out of them and waved at me and looked at me as though I was an athlete and shouted at me, ‘Come on, you can do it. You can do it,' " Tóibín said on NPR's All Things Considered in 2000. "And I basked in the sunshine of Irish approval and love for about three weeks.... You know, sort of -- I keep wondering when this, you know, backlash or something is going to happen, but I'm afraid it isn't going to happen. I'm afraid the country has changed, and being a writer there is actually quite a nice thing these days."

In fiction, travelogues, essays, and newspaper columns, Tóibín has established himself as a writer who can connect both the political and the personal to a sense of place. Though his work has often been informed by the political history of Ireland, he has also drawn on his travels to places like Spain and Argentina to create settings for his work.

And, even though his current home of Dublin has never made an appearance in any of his fiction, the environs of his youth -- County Wexford -- have been prominent.

The Washington Post, in a 2000 review of The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which Tóibín edited, called him a "journalist and critic of influence, a brilliant novelist steadily harvesting his own postage-stamp piece of Wexford as diligently as Faulkner worked Mississippi."

"Colm Tóibín has established himself as a major and distinctive voice in contemporary Irish fiction," the Dictionary of Literary Biography has noted. "While his work makes much of the complex associations between people and place, he eschews easy stereotypes of Irishness in favor of the often-contradictory impulses that pull on contemporary lives.

Tóibín was born into a family that had a long history in his hometown. His father, who died when Tóibín was 12, was a local schoolteacher, and his grandfather was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was twice imprisoned by British authorities for civil disobedience against British rule.

Tóibín explored this history as a writer, following four years teaching English in Barcelona, Spain. He began as a features editor but moved to editing a current affairs magazine and joined the Sunday Independent in Dublin in 1985 as a columnist. As an author, he started by writing travelogues on Ireland and Spain before publishing his first novel in 1990. The South, which draws on Ireland's Catholic-Protestant tensions as well as Tóibín's life in Spain, is about an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and moves to Spain, falls in love with a political artist, and returns to Ireland as an artist herself, once her son is grown.

This novel would establish Tóibín's reputation as a writer with a keen sensibility for characterization ("His novels have been noted for their deft characterizations, particularly of women, as evidenced by the strong female protagonist in The South," noted Contemporary Literary Criticism), but it wasn't until later novels such as The Story of the Night and The Blackwater Lightship that readers would realize his insight into gay characters as well.

"This is not a simple, upbeat story about gay liberation or political activism," Merle Rubin wrote in The Christian Science Monitor in 1997. "Powerfully imagined and tautly written, it is a subtly shaded portrait of a country in transition, a culture beginning to reflect important political changes, and a man coming to a new understanding of himself."

David Bahr, writing in The Advocate in 2000, predicted that The Blackwater Lightship -- now that it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize -- would finally make Tóibín known outside his magazine's primary readership: "His latest...should finally prove to straight American readers what many gay people have long known: that Tóibín is one of the more honest and subtly powerful novelists publishing today.... Perceptive and moving, The Blackwater Lightship again reveals Tóibín to be the kind of restrained, quiet writer whose prose feels as natural as breathing. His poetic narrative is so understated that its profound lyricism often takes you by surprise, infusing a potentially familiar tale with vibrant new life."

Mixing fiction and biography in 2004, Tóibín penned a novel inspired by the life of Henry James. "Ambitious and gracefully plotted," said the New Statesman. In the pages of London's Observer, a previous Tóibín skeptic confessed he had been swayed. "There's little in Colm Tóibín's previous work, to some of which this reviewer has been immune or even mildly allergic, to prepare for the startling excellence of his new novel," Adam Mars Jones wrote, "The Master is a portrait of Henry James that has the depth and finish of great sculpture."

Moving fully into nonfiction, Tóibín continued to impress.

The New Statesman observed that The Irish Famine: A Documentary was "no arid survey of the historiography of the famine, but a stimulating quest, prompted by a personal and vocational curiosity. And Joseph Olshan, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, awarded Tóibín's The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe an A, not only for its ability to dissect the Church's close relationship with European politics and social order. "[W]hat Tóibín comes back to is the transcendent power of Catholic ritual," Olshan writes. "Indeed, in a very moving centerpiece, Tóibín describes a therapy session during which he relives his father's death and comes to realize that his most profound wish is to bless his deceased parent with the sign of the cross. This is an extraordinary document."

But it may always be the intensely personal moments in his fiction that will always stand out. Susan Salter Reynolds noted as much in the Los Angeles Times in 2000. "There is little reconciliation in Colm Tóibín's novels; moments in which the stage is set for it usually pass," she wrote. "His novels build to these moments, fraught with potential, from which the air goes out with a nasty little hiss, and a new chapter, full of reasons not to live, begins.... It's good to read Tóibín's honest novels, in which human beings fail to forgive, fail to understand. We spend so much of our lives in the dark, shouldn't literature face this as squarely as we must?"

Good To Know

Tóibín's novel The Story of Night is No. 84 on the Publishing Triangle's list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels of all time.

He counts two books by James Baldwin -- Giovanni's Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain -- as major influences on his work.

Tóibín covered the downfall of the military dictatorship in Argentina in 1985.

He joined such authors as Roddy Doyle in the 1997 novel Finbar's Hotel, in which each of the seven authors wrote individual chapters set in the same 24-hour period at a fading hotel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Dublin, Ireland
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
    1. Education:
      St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

On the Monday, when the others had gone to the hotel for lunch, Fergus stayed alone with his mother’s body in the funeral parlour. She would, he knew, have so far enjoyed her own funeral. The hush of conversation with old friends, the conjuring up of memories, the arrival of people she would not have seen for years, all of this would have put a gleam into her eyes. But she would not, he thought, have enjoyed being alone now in the shadowy candlelight with her son, all the life gone out of her. She was not enjoying herself now, he thought.

He was tempted to whisper to her some words of comfort, to say that she would be all right, that she was at peace. He stood up and looked at her. Her dead face had none of her live face’s softness. He hoped some day he would be able to forget what she looked like as she lay inert in her coffin, with faint traces of an old distress behind the mask of stillness and peace and immobility. The undertakers or the nurses who had laid her out had made her chin seem firmer and more settled, almost pointed at the end with strange creases. If she spoke now, he knew, her old chin would come back, her old voice, her old smile. But that was all gone now; anyone seeing her for the first time would never know her. She was beyond knowing, he thought, and suddenly realized that he was going to cry.

When he heard the noise of feet outside, a man’s heavy shoes against the concrete, he felt almost surprised that someone should come now to break his vigil with her. He had been sitting there as though the door were closed and he could not be disturbed.

The man who appeared was middle-aged and tall; he walked with a slight stoop. He had a mild, modest look; Fergus was sure that he had never seen him before. He paid no attention to Fergus as he moved towards the coffin with a stiff reverence, blessing himself, and then reaching down gently to touch the dead woman’s forehead. He had the look of someone from the town, not a neighbour, Fergus felt, but someone she must have known years earlier. Being on display like this, being touched by anyone who came, would, he knew, have horrified his mother, but she had only a few more hours of it before the coffin would be closed and taken to the cathedral.

The man sat down beside him, still watching his mother’s face, gazing at it as though waiting for it to do something in the flickering candlelight. Fergus almost smiled to himself at the idea of telling the man that there was no point in looking at her so intensely, she was dead. The man turned to him as he blessed himself again and offered his large hand and his open-faced sympathy.

‘I’m very sorry for your trouble.’

‘Thank you,’ Fergus replied. ‘It was very good of you to come.’

‘She’s very peaceful,’ the man said.

‘She is,’ Fergus replied.

‘She was a great lady,’ the man said.

Fergus nodded. He knew that the man would now have to wait for at least ten minutes before he could decently go. He wished that he would introduce himself or give some clue about his identity. They sat in silence looking at the coffin.

As the time elapsed, it seemed odd to Fergus that no one else came. The others surely would have finished at the hotel; his mother’s friends had come all morning, and some relatives. It made no sense that all of them had left this gap for Fergus and a stranger to sit so uneasily beside each other for so long. This stretch of time appeared to Fergus to belong to a dark dream which took them out of all familiar elements into a place of dim, shimmering lights, uncomfortable silence, the unending, dull and neutral realm of the dead. As the man cleared his throat, Fergus glanced at him and saw in his dry skin and his pale face further evidence that these minutes did not belong to ordinary time, that they both had been dragged away by his mother’s spirit into a place of shadows.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents


The Use of Reason

A Song

The Name of the Game

Famous Blue Raincoat

A Priest in the Family

A Journey

Three Friends

A Summer Job

A Long Winter

One Minus One

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 12, 2009

    Not what I expected

    This is not what I expected and never finished the book.

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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good airplane reading

    Mothers and Sons is a collection of short stories by Colm Toibin that range from the mundane to the bizarre. The stories are not all to my liking, but those that are keep me riveted to my seat. This is a great book for those long air plane trips if you, like me, find it hard to sleep and you've already seen all the movies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2007

    Colm Tóibín: Master Storyteller

    One of our most intensely refined and challenging writers of the day, Colm Tóibín presents a new set of nine short stories correlated by the theme and title of mothers and sons, stories that mine the always fascinating relationship between mothers and sons, both positive and negative sides. This is writing of such apparent simplicity that the craftsmanship of his work is taken for granted - the mark of a truly fine writer. Here is a collection of stories to be read slowly, allowing time to digest each experience fully before moving on to the next. 'The Use of Reason' explores a son's theft of valuable art and the consequences of his actions result in a confrontation with his alcoholic mother that supercedes the criminal act. In the brief 'The Song' a young musician almost mistakenly hears his miscreant mother singing a ballad that should erase years of desertion just as in 'Famous Blue Raincoat' the son discovers songs his mother recorded with her hippie sister before disaster struck the drug-impacted band. In 'The Name of the Game' a mother attempts to recover the errors of her deceased husband in making a life for her son, unknowingly at odds with her son's true needs and goals. A mother faces the infamy of her priest son when his history of sexual abuse surfaces in 'A Priest in the Family', and in 'A Summer Job' the devotion of a son to his grandmother overshadows his relationship to his mother. In 'Three Friends' and 'A Long Winter' Tóibín delicately and with subtle sensitivity introduces same sex themes to embroider stories of strong and powerful tales. For this reader 'A Long Winter' (the longest of the stories) is so excellent it could be stretched into an entire novel! Tóibín finds unique lines of communication among his characters, some with words, others with quiescent descriptors, and the flow of his use of the English language peppered with bits and pieces of both Irish culture and Spanish concepts (in 'The Long Winter') is lyrical, pungent and abundantly enriching to read. His mind is fertile and his style of writing is full of grace and feeling. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp

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    Posted December 29, 2009

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    Posted December 27, 2009

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    Posted October 14, 2009

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