My apologies for not continuing my St. Patrick’s week as intended; March has been a busy month. But we still have one day left of it, so here is my final bit of March Irishness: a book I finished (fittingly) on Saint Patrick’s Day itself, Mothers and Sons.
Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons is a collection of short stories centered around the infinite kinds of relationships that exist between mothers and sons. In his stories, these relationships range from an art thief trying to both provide for and escape his loose-lipped mother, to a widow trying to make a new life for her children, to a son seeking to escape his mother’s recent death through vice, to a son who seeks to understand his estranged mother through music (and beyond). All Toibin’s stories are delicately crafted, and in some way heartbreaking (and all, save for one, take place in Toibin’s Ireland). Even more so than many writers of short fiction that I have encountered, Toibin leaves his reader unsatisfied. So many of the stories finish at the cusp of something, whether it be action or decision or any kind of resolution. While I often find this frustrating (particularly because I get so quickly invested in Toibin’s characters), it largely makes the stories more powerful; what kind of concrete resolution could these characters find in their lives, anyway?
One of Toibin’s stories that struck me most was “A Priest in the Family,” the title of which is a reference to the old Irish phrase laying out what defined success. In it, a mother tries to cope with the shame of her son, a formerly well-respected priest and the holiest of her children, having been accused of and confessed to the child abuse that continues to plague the Catholic Church. The story doesn’t meditate on the actual horror of the event or its effect on the priest or the victim, but on the repercussions on the priest’s family and mother. It is his mother, his sisters, his nieces and nephews, who have to live with the shame of knowing what their neighbors think when they pass their homes, or how their picture of this formerly wholesome family has skewed. More and more this is a reality for many families; it is easy to forget that it is not only the victim whose life is changed.
So, though short, Toibin’s stories are some heavy and affecting stuff. He is a wonderful writer; I first appreciated him as the editor of my first Irish Literature anthology, then moved onto some of his fiction (I highly recommend The Blackwater Lightship – also, interestingly, about the relationship between a mother and son). He was recently awarded the Costa Award (formerly called the Whitbread Award) for his novel Brooklyn, which I hope to read soon. A great writer.
And so there goes March, and with it all St. Patrick’s celebrations. Worry not – there will still be plenty of Irishness in the future, irrespective of holiday or month.