New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin

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New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin

Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Biographical essays unpicking complex family relationships of Irish and other writers. Stamina needed.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141041766

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Colm Tóibín has created a series of biographical essays, amassed in authoritative detail. They presumably started life as comparative lectures for fortunate students at universities in the USA and UK where Toibin has held tenure. The first chapter describes the phenomenon of motherless children as a plot driver in novels by Jane Austen and Henry James. Irish readers may be particularly interested in the earlier half which includes chapters on Brian Moore, Sebastian Barry and Roddy Doyle.

Some of the essays examine similarities, as in the ancestral confusion felt by two fatherless American blacks, James Baldwin and Barrack Obama. In between are intimately-pictured, difficult family relationships: Tennessee Williams, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, JM Synge and more. Tóibín shows them as products of their familial upbringing both in their creative firepower and in the narcissistic, tortured adults they become. Most of the subjects were homosexual, although that seems largely irrelevant to Tóibín’s main theme. Thomas Mann, the German writer, provided an extraordinary emotional home for his six children. Freud would have had a field day.

I didn’t find the book teasing, wonderfully funny as the Guardian reviewer promised; in fact, it didn’t really appeal at a first reading. My literary muscles are currently way out of condition for coping with this sort of book. That isn’t meant as a criticism of a great writer, but a comment on the unsuitability of my choice.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, so they say. Particularly not by its title. Colm Tóibín has published two previous books of short stories, as well as seven novels, so an eye-catching title like 'New Ways to Kill Your Mother' with a funky cover sounded to me like a entertaining book of short stories. A fair assumption, perhaps, but way off beam. I suspect the book I meant to read was his short story collection, The Empty Family by Colm Toibin.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

A much better starting place for this masterly writer would be his fictional biography of Henry James, The Master which was Booker Prize short-listed. Hand on heart, I sprinted through the whole book in a couple of days. Unless you generally marathon run with FR Leavis, I have to respectfully suggest that you should handle New Ways to Kill Your Mother slowly and with care.

If you, too, are a general reader looking for American short stories, you might like to try The Last Bachelor by Jay McInerney.

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