House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Dysfunctional family…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Agamemnon decides to sacrifice his daughter to the gods to gain their support for his war, his wife Clytemnestra plots a bloody and horrific revenge. In her grief and rage, she doesn’t consider the profound effects her actions will have on her surviving children – Electra, silently watching as her mother finds herself at the mercy of her lover and fellow conspirator, Aegisthus; and young Orestes, exiled from his home and facing many dangers as he fights for survival.

This retelling of the Greek tragedy is given in three voices. Clytemnestra comes first and it’s through her eyes, the eyes of a mother, that we see Agamemnon’s trickery and the horror of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Tóibín shows us the full brutality of both Agamemnon’s act and Clytemnestra’s revenge in all their blood-soaked horror. Clytemnestra tells us what she thought, said, did, but it’s in the gaps between that the reader learns how she felt – helpless in the face of a savagery she shares. Agamemnon’s murder is frighteningly well done, but then Clytemnestra finds herself not the mistress but the property of Aegisthus, a man revealed as a cold and cruel tyrant.

None of us who had travelled, however, guessed the truth for one second, even though some of the others standing around, maybe even most of them, must have known it. But not one of them gave a sign, not a single sign.

The sky remained blue, the sun hot in the sky, and the gods – oh yes, the gods! – seemed to be smiling on our family that day, on the bride-to-be and her young brother, on me, and on her father as he stood in the embrace of love, as he would stand eventually in the victory of battle with his army triumphant. Yes, the gods smiled that day as we came in all innocence to help Agamemnon execute his plan.

On the night of the murder, Orestes is kidnapped and held with the sons of other important men, all hostages to ensure their families’ compliance with the new regime. After some time, Orestes falls under the influence of Leander, who persuades him to escape along with a third boy, Mitros. Orestes’ section tells of the boys’ lives as they find ways to survive until they reach manhood. Again, there are some scenes of brutality but there is also love in this section as the boys, separated from their families, create a kind of new family of their own.

I found these first two sections excellent – Clytemnestra’s full of bitterness and rage, Orestes’ softer and quieter despite the episodes of violence. Unfortunately, after that point the book fell away for me rather. The third section is seen from Electra’s point of view. Ignored by her mother and grieving her father, Electra has inherited the family desire for revenge, but somehow I didn’t find this as convincing as Clytemnestra’s vengefulness. And when Orestes returns as a man, I fear I found him rather pale and insipid. Tóibín’s writing is always rather understated when it comes to emotions, and that usually works wonderfully for me – his descriptions of the actions and thoughts of his characters is enough to allow me to feel I understand the emotions that are driving them without Tóibín having to spell them out. And that’s how I felt about Clytemnestra and the younger Orestes. But with Electra and the older Orestes, the understatement is less successful, leaving me struggling to empathise with either.

Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.

They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

Tóibín’s writing is excellent as always, especially powerful when showing the brutality in the earlier passages. But I found the latter half lacked that power and that, added to my lack of sympathy for the younger characters, meant I was left rather unmoved by their eventual fates. Of course, it’s an essential read for any fan of Tóibín, and it’s quite probable that my slight disappointment is largely caused by my overly high expectations. But it’s not one I would recommend as an introduction to his work – for me, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of many of his earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

Weighed in the balances…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the heather blazingOn the last day of the legal term, High Court judge Eamon Redmond will deliver a judgement and then head off for the summer to Cush on the coast of County Wexford, where he has spent all his summers since childhood. Outwardly he is a successful man, well respected in the country, an advisor to the government, and someone who takes the responsibility of his position seriously. But he is also reserved, his life ruled by order, and somewhat remote even from his closest family. As the summer progresses, he finds events in the present force him to revisit and re-assess his past.

Like so many of Tóibín’s books, this is almost entirely a character study with very little in the way of plot. Generally speaking, that doesn’t work for me, but Tóibín’s deceptively plain prose and in-depth understanding of the people and communities he’s writing about exert an almost hypnotic effect on me, drawing me into the lives of the people he offers up for inspection – characters so entirely real and well-drawn that it becomes hard after a time to think of them as in any way fictional. This effect is magnified by his siting of so many of his novels in and around the town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up – a place whose culture and society I have gradually come to feel I understand almost as intimately as my own hometown.

History plays a major role in this book, both personal and political. Eamon’s mother died in childbirth leaving him an only child to be brought up by his father and extended family. His grandfather was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and his father too played a part, albeit small, in the troubled history of the country. Through them, Eamon is introduced early to the politics of Fianna Fáil, and the opportunity in his late teens to make a speech in front of the revered leader of the uprising, Éamon de Valera, gains him the support that sets him on the path to his present position. Yet now decades later, he is a pillar of the Establishment, delivering judgements on Nationalist terrorists.

begorrathon 2016

The same dichotomy exists in his personal life. The judgement he is about to give is on a schoolgirl, an unmarried mother, who wishes to go back to school. The Catholic school has expelled her on the grounds that her return would send a dangerous moral message to their other pupils. His musings show his doubts over the religious aspects built into the Constitution, and in his own ability to decide right and wrong. He considers using his judgement to redefine the family as it was understood when the Constitution was written, but in the end, through a kind of cowardice, he decides in favour of the school. It is a feature of his remoteness that he gives no consideration to the fact that his own daughter is pregnant and unmarried when reaching his decision – this is a man whose work and family are kept in strictly separate compartments.

Tóibín’s prose is always understated, relying on precision and clarity rather than poetic flourishes for its effect. Despite this, there is a deep emotionalism in his work, an utter truthfulness that can be, in its quietness, as devastating as any great overblown work of drama. In a book full of parallels, Eamon’s story is headed and tailed by two commonplace tragedies – his father’s stroke while Eamon was still at school, and his wife’s stroke and subsequent death in the present day. His early life is beautifully observed, with scenes such as the family gathering at Christmas showing all the depth of family and community in small town Ireland. And his courtship of Carmel, his future wife, is no Romeo and Juliet affair – it’s a truthful account of two young people coming together who share many of the same views on life and are able to compromise on the rest.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

It is in understanding Eamon’s childhood and early years that we come to understand the adult man, and in a sense his life and family history mirrors that of Ireland too – the tumultuous century of rebellions and civil strife drawing towards a quieter ending as Tóibín was writing in the early ’90s; the past not forgotten, the future not yet certain, the direction in the hands of those in power, many of whom would have to make major shifts in their political stance to achieve a hope of settled peace. Tóibín is never overtly political in his writing, but his deep insight into this society of Enniscorthy, built up layer on layer with each book he sets there, provides a microcosm for us to see the slow process of change taking place, the small shifts in attitude that gradually make the big political adjustments possible.

In truth, Eamon’s story didn’t resonate with me quite as deeply as Tóibín’s women, but I suspect that’s to do with my own gender rather than the book. Sometimes my lack of knowledge of Irish history left me feeling I wasn’t getting the full nuance of parts of the story. But it is another wonderful character study, moving and insightful, that adds a further dimension to Tóibín’s portrayal of this community. Coincidentally, I followed immediately on my reading of this book with Joyce’s Dubliners, and began to feel that, although Tóibín is working on small-town life and in full-length novels, in some ways his books have the same effect as Joyce’s stories – each one concentrating on a single aspect, but together building to give a complete and profound picture of a complexly intertwined society.

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This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora webster‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains
Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.

My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín read by Meryl Streep

Flesh and blood and bone…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

testament streepWhen it comes to dramatic interpretations of books, every reader is his/her own director. We know how the book sounded in our head, how the characters looked, behaved, spoke. How often do we feel a little disappointed in the ‘film of the book’ – not because it is in any way unfaithful to the story, but simply because it’s not quite as we envisaged it? The same problem of reader-as-director applies to audiobooks. Sometimes the narrator’s voice fits perfectly with the voice in our head – Derek Jacobi as Watson narrating Holmes, for instance, Joan Hickson reading Agatha Christie, or Jonathan Cecil as the perfect narrator of Jeeves and Wooster…for this reader/director anyway.

The Testament of Mary is the ideal book for audio, since it is the first-person narration of Mary’s story, and was originally written as a performance piece before being turned into a book. I have reviewed the book already (click to see the review) and found it a harrowing novel, full of guilt and fear. I was thrilled to hear that Meryl Streep had recorded it, given my admiration of her talent as an actor and my love of her voice. And I’d like to say straight off that hers is a wonderful performance, emotional, well-paced and with Mary’s character fully realised. But…but…the emotions that Streep has given us are primarily those of sorrow, loss and regret and while that is a perfectly valid reading of the book, it doesn’t quite chime with my own directorial interpretation. The anger and bitterness, the fear and guilt were all a little muted – subsumed by the sorrow. This is a book that made me cry for Mary, indeed, but it also made my blood boil, horrified me and made me feel Mary’s fear.

meryl streep

Up to the point of the Lazarus story, Streep had me totally with her. This was perhaps the part of the book that affected me most. The vision that Tóibín gives us of the strangeness and pain of Lazarus following his return to life churned my emotions, and Streep caught this aspect perfectly. But at the description of the crucifixion itself, I felt that the horror didn’t come through – this is a mother watching her son having nails driven through his hands and suffering a cruel and lingering death. Mary explains why she did nothing, but that doesn’t mean that she remained dispassionate, and I’m afraid Streep’s reading seemed strangely passionless for the most part, almost resigned.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Since the story is being told by an old Mary long after the event, I could see the validity of Streep’s reading – this is a story Mary has gone over in her head many times and the horror will no longer be fresh for her. But it is for us – and I felt there should have been more of an emotional peak. The narration didn’t move me to anything like the extent of my own internal reading of the book – I didn’t find I was sharing Mary’s emotions, I didn’t feel the pain and the guilt to the same degree, and the fear just didn’t seem to be there.

Overall, I may have felt quite differently about this reading had I never read the book, and I would certainly recommend it highly to anyone who prefers audio to print. It is one interpretation, certainly at least as valid as my own, and Streep’s performance is strong and beautifully controlled. But it didn’t match the expectations of my interior director and therefore didn’t have quite the impact I was anticipating. With luck, this may become the kind of book that many actors will want to tackle and we may get a range of audio interpretations in time. If so, though I personally will be hoping for a more overtly emotional performance, Streep has set a very high standard and I’m sure this version will remain one of the best.

Amazon UK Link                                     Audible UK Link
Amazon US link                                      Audible US Link

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Mothers and daughters…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the blackwater lightshipHelen has had a strained relationship with her mother Lily and grandmother Dora for years. But now Helen’s brother Declan is dying of AIDS, and the three women are forced to come together for his sake. At Declan’s request, they all go together to spend some time at Dora’s home, resurrecting unhappy memories of the time Helen and Declan lived there as children, while Lily was in Dublin looking after their dying father.

Tóibín’s writing throughout is spare and beautifully controlled, always giving the impression of simplicity and integrity. He paints a very convincing picture of the small village of Blackwater, old-fashioned and conservative, also slowly dying as erosion from the sea gradually destroys the houses built on the coast. There’s no real plot; this is a study of the three generations of women, forced together physically by a shared grief but emotionally separate. And there’s a secondary strand as Declan’s illness allows Tóibín to look at attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland in the ‘90s, through the reactions of the three generations of his family to his two friends who have come to stay with him. The book is told in the third person from Helen’s viewpoint and what we get to know about the other characters comes through that filter, and through the many conversations that take place as the long days and wakeful nights pass. As old resentments come to the surface, Tóibín takes no sides and apportions no blame, nor does he offer any easy resolutions.

“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.”

I’ve been reading Tóibín backwards in time, my first introduction to him having been the gut-wrenching and amazingly powerful The Testament of Mary (which I’m delighted to see on the Booker longlist). In this book, I can clearly see the potential that he fulfilled in the later one, but I found this book curiously cold. Although we learn a little about Declan’s friends, Declan himself remains underdeveloped – he’s really little more than a catalyst to bring the women together. The contrast of the emotional openness and competence of Declan’s friends with the frosty reserve and inadequacy of the women was, I felt, over-stated and a little too simplistic to be truly convincing.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn.

Overall, though, the themes of grief and family, the sense of place and time and the intimacy of the characterisation are all hallmarks of Tóibín’s work which, combined with the quality of the writing, make this an insightful and compelling read; and, despite my reservations around the emotional depth of the book, one that I would highly recommend.

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

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The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus’ followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity.  Highly recommended.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Update to original review –  may contain mild spoilers

Since I first posted this review on Amazon US in October 2012, I have become very aware from other reviews that many Christians have found this book offensive, though being honest it seems often to be people who haven’t read it who find it so.  From my perspective, there is no denial of Christ being the Son of God in the book. Indeed, Tóibín tells the tale in such a way that there is no doubt that Christ performed miracles, though Mary may question their worth. The story of Lazarus is one of the most haunting parts of the book.

This is the story of an old and lonely woman, who has lost her son in the most horrific way, living with grief and pain and, not unnaturally, doubt as to whether it was worth it. The guilt Mary feels is the creation of her own mind – at no point did I feel that Tóibín was implying that her guilt was well-founded. How many mothers feel undeserved guilt when their children suffer? Why would Mary be different?

As I said in the original review, this is a very human story that moved me deeply and remains fresh and sharp in my mind six months later. I can only encourage people to read it with an open mind. If it is read as fiction, not fact, then it is a very beautiful piece of writing and a master-class in story-telling.

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