Ireland has been obscenely generous to the world with its literary talents—especially short-story writers. During the 20th century alone, James Joyce, John McGahern, William Trevor and Edna O’Brien all emerged from its great green earth and made the short story form their own. With Mothers and Sons, Colm Tóibín catapults his name into this illustrious group of writers—a remarkable feat, since it’s his first outing in the form. These nine tales read like miniature novels; they are so assuredly paced and plangent in tone it’s hardly an exaggeration to compare them to Joyce’s classic Dubliners.
Like Joyce’s, Tóibín’s stories be-gin in Dublin, but stretch geographically down the Southeast coast and beyond. Read as a whole, the book shapes an enduring portrait of Ireland in the midst of a disorienting axial tilt—the country’s sudden economic prosperity jostling old traditions, importing new expectations and rupturing familial loyalties.
In “The Name of the Game,” a widow inherits a failing country store and a mountain of debt from her deceased husband. Rather than submit to a bank manager’s bullying, she juggles her finances, opens up a chip shop and, with the help of her son, starts to earn back her good name. Until, that is, neighbors complain of the noise.
“Still, despite all the troubles,” says a local councilman, explaining the technicalities behind why she must be shut down, “[T]he country’s come far, haven’t we, Nancy, I mean, we’ve come a long way.”
Ireland may be considered the European Union’s gleaming success story, but many of the characters in Mothers and Sons are still awaiting the payoff. In “A Song,” a young man slips into a pub full of the “sort of people who would blissfully spill pints over your uilleann pipes” with nary an apology. He hears his estranged mother sing a song then ducks out while the out-of-towners party on.
Cleverly and subtly, Tóibín explores the tensions of this expanding world through relationships between mothers and sons. The centripetal force of prosperity peels and tears at them. In “The Use of Reason,” a professional thief nearly gets caught in an art heist because his mother has been drinking and talking as if it were the old days, when strangers could be trusted.
He is not the only one in this book who feels sold out. In “A Summer Job,” a young man’s mother forces him to spend summers with his aging grandmother, who lavishes him with affection and gifts in a way his parents do not. This convenient arrangement backfires on the young man’s mother when a surprising closeness arises between the two, casting her into a wider orbit from both of them.
A similar sense of betrayal hangs over “A Long Winter,” a novella-length tale about a young man whose mother hides her drinking problem. When he and his father try to force her to stop cold turkey, she runs off into a freak snowstorm. Shame delays the men’s call for a search party, a move that probably cost her life.
Tóibín never overplays these mo-ments, eschewing melodrama even when the story seems to beg for it. In “A Priest in the Family,” a widowed mother discovers she’s the last to learn that her son has committed horrible sexual abuses. Humiliated, yet unbowed, she decides to stand by him. The scene in which she informs him of this is as heartbreaking and perfectly cast as anything Tóibín has ever written.
Here is another remarkable thing about this book: Tóibín’s 2004 novel, The Master, evoked Henry James in the waning decades of his life. Tóibín didn’t just climb inside his hero; he seemed to inhabit his prose, too, unfurling sentences as rich and seamless in their weave as those of the master himself.
In Mothers and Sons, Tóibín reclaims his own rhythms without a hitch. Once again his sentences are spare, almost Spartan. They make clarity look easy. Each paragraph follows the next, as fine and polished as a new sheet of glass. Reading this kind of prose flatters and enlightens our gaze. It makes these profound insights and age-old heartbreaks seem true and terrible, as if they were our own.