Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons

3.2 6
by Colm Toibin
     
 

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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

Overview

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 cction 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.

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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416539186
Publisher:
Scribner
Publication date:
01/02/2007
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
202,834
File size:
543 KB

Read an Excerpt


A Song

Noel was the driver that weekend in Clare, the only musician among his friends who did not drink. They were going to need a driver; the town was, they believed, too full of eager students and eager tourists; the pubs were impossible. For two or three nights they would aim for empty country pubs or private houses. Noel played the tin whistle with more skill than flair, better always accompanying a large group than playing alone. His singing voice, however, was special, even though it had nothing of the strength and individuality of his mother's voice, known to all of them from one recording made in the early seventies. He could do perfect harmony with anybody, moving a fraction above or below, roaming freely around the other voice, no matter what sort of voice it was. He did not have an actual singing voice, he used to joke, he had an ear, and in that small world it was agreed that his ear was flawless.

On the Sunday night the town had grown unbearable. Most visitors were, his friend George said, the sort of people who would blissfully spill pints over your uilleann pipes. And even some of the better-known country pubs were too full of outsiders for comfort. Word had spread, for example, of the afternoon session at Kielty's in Millish, and now that the evening was coming in, it was his job to rescue two of his friends and take them from there to a private house on the other side of Ennis where they would have peace to play.

As soon as he entered the pub, he saw in the recess by the window one of them playing the melodion, the other the fiddle, both acknowledging him with the tiniest flick of the eyes and a sharp knitting of the brow. A crowd had gathered around them, two other fiddlers and a young woman playing the flute. The table in front of them was laden down with full and half-full pint glasses.

Noel stood back and looked around him before going up to the bar to get a soda water and lime; the music had brightened the atmosphere of the pub so that even the visitors, including those who knew nothing about the music, had a strange glow of contentment and ease.

He saw one of his other friends at the bar waiting for a drink and nodded calmly to him before moving toward him to tell him that they would soon be moving on. His friend agreed to come with them.

"Don't tell anyone where we're going," Noel said.

As soon as they could decently leave, he thought, and it might be an hour or more, he would drive them across the countryside, as though in flight from danger.

His friend, once he had been served, edged nearer to him, a full pint of lager in his hand.

"I see you are on the lemonade," he said with a sour grin. "Would you like another?"

"It's soda water and lime," Noel said. "You couldn't afford it."

"I had to stop playing," his friend said. "It got too much. We should move when we can. Is there much drink in the other place?"

"You're asking the wrong man," Noel said, guessing that his friend had been drinking all afternoon.

"We can get drink on the way," his friend said.

"I'm ready to go when the boys are," Noel said, nodding in the direction of the music.

His friend frowned and sipped his drink, and looked up, searching Noel's face for a moment, then glancing around before moving closer to him so that he could not be heard by anyone else.

"I'm glad you're on the soda water. I suppose you know that your mother is here."

"I do all right," Noel said, smiling. "There'll be no beer tonight."

His friend turned away.

As he stood alone near the bar, Noel calculated that, as he was twenty-eight, this meant he had not seen his mother for nineteen years. He had not even known she was in Ireland and, as he looked around carefully, he did not think that he would recognize her. His friends knew that his parents had separated but none of them knew the bitterness of the split and the years of silence which had ensued.

Recently, Noel had learned from his father that she had written to Noel in the early years and that his father had returned each letter to her unopened. He had deeply regretted saying in response that he wished his father had abandoned him rather than his mother. He and his father had barely spoken since then and Noel resolved as he listened to the music rising and growing faster that he would go and see him when he got back to Dublin.

He found that he had finished his drink quickly without noticing; he turned back to the bar, which was busy, and tried to capture the attention of John Kielty, the owner, or his son, young John, as a way of keeping himself occupied while he worked out what he should do. He knew that he could not leave the bar and drive away; his friends were depending on him, and he did not, in any case, want to be alone now. He would have to stay here, he knew, but move into the background, remain in the shadows so that he would not meet her. A few people in the bar would know who he was, he supposed, since he had been coming here in the summer for almost ten years. He hoped that they had not noticed him, or, even if they had, would not have occasion to tell his mother that her son, two hundred miles away from home, was among the company, that he had wandered by accident into the same bar.

Over the years he had heard her voice on the radio, the same few songs always from her old album, now released on CD, two of them in Irish, all of them slow and haunting, her voice possessing a depth and sweetness, a great confidence and fluency. He knew her face from the cover of the album and from memory, of course, but also from an interview done in London maybe ten years earlier for The Sunday Press. He had watched his father burn that week's edition but had surreptitiously bought another copy himself and cut out the interview and the large photograph which had been printed alongside it. What had struck him hardest was the news that his grandmother in Galway was still alive. His father, he later learned, had banned her visits as well, and visits to her, once his wife had fled to England with another man. His mother told the interviewer that she often returned to Ireland and traveled to Galway to see her mother and her aunts from whom she had learned all the songs. She did not mention that she had a son.

Over the months that followed he often studied the photograph, noting her witty smile, her ease with the camera, the dazzling life in her eyes.

When he had begun to sing in his late teens, and the quality of his voice was recognized, he was used on a number of albums as harmony and backing vocals. His name was printed with the names of the other musicians. He always looked at the CD covers as though he were his mother, wondering if she would ever buy these recordings, and imagining her idly glancing at the names listed on the back, and finding his name, and stopping for a second, and remembering what age he must be, and asking herself about him.

He bought another soda water and lime and turned from the bar, trying to work out where he should stand. Suddenly, he found that his mother was staring directly at him. In the dim light, she seemed not much older than her photograph in The Sunday Press had made her appear. She was in her early fifties now, he knew, but with her long fringe and her auburn hair, she could have been ten or fifteen years younger. He took her in calmly, evenly, not smiling or offering any hint of recognition. Her gaze was almost too open and curious.

He glanced toward the door and the dwindling summer light; when he looked back at her she was still watching him. She was with a group of men; some of them, by their dress, he judged to be local, but at least two of them were outsiders, probably English, he thought. And then there was also an older woman whom he could not place, sitting in their company.

Suddenly, he noticed that the music had stopped. He looked over in case his friends were packing up their instruments, but saw that they were facing him as though waiting for something. He was surprised to see that the owner's wife, Statia Kielty, had appeared in the bar. It was a rule she explained to all comers that she never stood behind the bar after six in the evening. She smiled at him, but he was not sure that she knew him by name. He was, for her, he thought, one of the boys who came down from Dublin a few times each summer. Yet you could never tell with her; she had a sharp eye and missed nothing.

She motioned him to move aside so she could get a better view of the company. As he did so, she called across to his mother, seeking her attention.

"Eileen! Eileen!"

"I'm here, Statia," his mother replied. There was a faint English edge to her accent.

"We're all ready, Eileen," Statia said. "Will you do it now before it gets too crowded?"

His mother lowered her head and lifted it again, her expression serious. She shook her head gravely at Statia Kielty as if to say that she did not think she could do it, even if she was ready to try. John Kielty and young John, by now, had stopped serving, and all the men at the bar were facing toward Noel's mother. She offered them a girlish smile, pushed her fringe back, and lowered her head once more.

"Silence now!" John Kielty shouted.

Her voice when it rose seemed to come from nowhere. It was more powerful, even on the low notes, than the voice on the recording. Most people in the bar would know, Noel thought, one or two versions of the song she sang which were plainer, and some might also know his mother's version. This rendition was wilder, all grace notes and flourishes and sudden shifts of tone. As she moved into the second verse, she lifted her head, her eyes wide open, and she smiled at Statia, who stood behind the bar with her arms folded.

Noel believed that she had started too intensely, that it would be impossible to get through the eight or nine verses without losing something, without being forced to bring the voltage down. As she carried on, however, he knew he was wrong. Her control of her breathing for the high grace notes was astonishing, but it was also her naturalness with the language which made the difference; it was her first language, as it must have been his, but his Irish was half-forgotten now. Her style was the old style, with electricity added, almost declamatory at times, with hardly any interest in the sweetness of the tune.

He had not intended to shift from where he stood, but he found that he had come closer to her and stood alone between her group and the bar. The song, like many of the old songs, was about unrequited love, but it was different from most of them in its increasing bitterness. Soon, it became a song about treachery.

She had her eyes closed as she worked on trills and long notes. At times she left half a second between lines, not to catch her breath but to take the measure of the bar and its inhabitants, let them hear their own stillness as the song began its slow and despairing conclusion.

As she started these stanzas of pure lament, his mother was staring straight at him once more. Her voice became even wilder than before, but never too dramatic or striving too much for effect. She did not take her eyes from Noel as she came to the famous last verse. He, in turn, had worked out in his head a way of singing above her. He imagined fiercely how it could be done, how her voice would evade such accompaniment, and perhaps deliberately wrong-foot it, but he believed if he was ready to move a fraction more up or down as she did that it could be managed. However, he knew to remain silent and watch her quietly as she looked into his eyes; he was aware that everyone was watching her as she sang of her love who took north from her and south from her, east from her and west from her, and now -- she lowered her head again and almost spoke the last words -- her love had taken God from her.

When she finished, she nodded at John Kielty and Statia and turned modestly to her friends, not acknowledging the applause. When Noel noticed Statia Kielty looking at him, and smiling warmly and familiarly, he believed that she knew who he was. And he realized then that he could not stay. He would have to summon the others, try to exude a natural impatience; he would have to make it look normal that his mother would remain with her friends and that he would leave with his.

"God, that was powerful," one of them said when he approached the recess at the window.

"She's a fine voice all right," Noel replied.

"Are we going to stay or what?" his friend asked.

"I told the others that I'd drive you to Cusshane as soon as I could. They'll be waiting for you."

"We'll drink up so," his friend said.

As they slowly prepared themselves for departure he kept an eye on Statia Kielty. She had moved from behind the bar, and was accosted by a few drinkers for polite banter, but she was clearly on her way to speak to his mother. It could take Statia a while to mention that Noel was in the bar. Indeed, she might not mention it at all. On the other hand, it could be the first thing that she mentioned. And it might be enough to make his mother stand up and search for him or she might smile softly, half indifferently, and not move from her seat or change the expression on her face. He did not want either of these things to happen.

He turned and noticed that his friends still had not finished their drinks; they had barely put away their instruments.

"I'm going out to the car," he said. "You'll find me out there. Make sure you grab Jimmy up at the bar. I'm taking him, too."

When one of them looked at him puzzled, he knew that he had spoken falsely and too fast. He shrugged and made his way past the drinkers at the front door of the pub, making sure not to look at anybody. Outside, as the first car of the evening with its full headlights on approached, he was shaking. He knew he would have to be careful to say nothing more, to pretend that it had been an ordinary evening. It would all be forgotten; they would play and sing until the small hours. He sat in the car and waited in the darkness for the others to come.

Copyright © 2007 by Colm Tóibín

Meet the Author

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

Brief Biography

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

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Mothers and Sons 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DonnaJoldersma More than 1 year ago
This is not what I expected and never finished the book.
Charles_Ray More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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