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New Ways to Kill Your Mother

Author and essayist Colm Tóibín explores the ways that writers' families influence their work.

June 15, 2012

New Ways to Kill Your Mother By Colm Tóibín Scribner 352 pp.


Reviewed by Donna Rifkind for The Barnes & Noble Review

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Colm Tóibín the novelist is the master of the slow burn. His best fiction – "The Blackwater Lightship," "The Heather Blazing," "Brooklyn" – sneaks up on you, with a gradual accumulation of events, until a specific moment when you realize you're hopelessly involved. It's this cumulative effect that makes his novels seem most artfully lifelike.    

Colm Tóibín the essayist is a more urgent but no less crafty storyteller. The mini-biographical pieces in his new collection, which were originally composed as reviews, introductions, or lectures, explore how writers' families influence their work and how the writing life affects families. Within this common thematic foundation, Tóibín finds an engaging multiplicity of detail. And his critical voice is as seductive as the widely varying voices in his novels.

Tóibín, who was born in the southern Irish town of Enniscorthy in 1955, divides these essays into two sections: "Ireland" and "Elsewhere." (A discursive piece called "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother" serves as an introduction.) The seven essays in "Ireland" entertainingly dismiss any cobwebby clichés about the Emerald Isle and its silver-tongued bards. To this end, Tóibín quotes the always-quotable Samuel Beckett, who confesses a "chronic inability to understand ... a phrase like 'the Irish people,' or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the Union or after...."

The piece on Beckett – which Tóibín wrote for the London Review of Books as a critique of the playwright's first volume of  letters – goes on to show how Beckett sought a way to address Ireland in his work "without any reference to its mythology, its history, the amusing oddness of its people or the so-called lilt of its language." Tóibín maintains that Beckett found more inspiration in the paintings of Jack Yeats (the brother of poet William Butler Yeats) than in the work of any Irish writer, much the same way as the trailblazing young Hemingway strove toward a new literary style by studying the paintings of Cézanne.

Lacking the sensible nature of his father or brother, the dreamy, impractical Beckett was, says Tóibín, "the sort of young man who was made to break his poor mother's heart." While she fretted over his waywardness, he bunked with a bohemian aunt and uncle, distancing himself from his mother's "savage loving" as he would keep his distance from Ireland. Despite Beckett's self-imposed exile, both mother and motherland helped to form the writer he became, and found an oblique expression in his strange and austerely beautiful theatrical inventions.


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