New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, by Colm Tóibín

When I heard the title of this book mentioned during Tóibín's appearance at a local college last week, I knew I had to have it. I first encountered his work at a used tool and book sale in a small market town in the Midlands. Rows of long tables filled the town hall, stacked with old saber saws and wrenches, as well as piles of well-thumbed books. I picked up a copy of The Heather Blazing, intrigued by the title, and devoured it that night. I liked it so much that I made my book club read it, and they too thought it one of the best books we'd read. We're all Tóibín fans now and have gone on to read together The Master and Brooklyn.

I have heard Tóibín speak three times now, and each time been impressed by the gravity, thoughtfulness, and generosity that he brings to his art and craft. These qualities are apparent in the essays collected in this book, all of them previously published in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, and other journals and anthologies. As a long-time LRB subscriber, I recognised some of the essays, but within the context of this book found their significance changed slightly, becoming deeper and widening through association.

In the prologue “Jane Austen, Henry James, and the Death of the Mother”, Tóibín introduces the approach used in this collection. He refers to a book I found useful: Ruth Perry's Novel Relations, in one chapter of which she describes the curious lack of mothers in eighteenth-century novels and posits both literary expediency—a protagonist will not be interesting if rendered powerless and submissive by the protection of her mother—and “existential necessities”—the absence of the heroine's source leaving her disconnected and alone. I first came across this idea of motherless children in Adrienne Rich's essay “Jane Eyre: The Temptations of a Motherless Woman” in Ms in 1973; to my joy, the article is referenced by Perry. Tóibín says that “the novel is a form ripe for orphans . . . mothers get in the way in fiction.” It is the development of the individual that novels explore, “when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no one to advise her, and no possibility of this.” He goes on to explore Austen and James's novels in terms not only of separation from the birth family, but in later works, the struggle within a marriage.

From here Tóibín examines the family dynamics of a variety of authors. While the second half of the book focuses on writers from around the world, such as Mann, Borges, and Baldwin, the first half of the book concentrates on Irish writers, such as Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Roddy Doyle. This layering of the Irish experience brings in influences beyond the extended family of parents, aunts and uncles to include Irish political figures and the fatherland itself.

I'm currently reading a novel set in Ireland in which a man talks about growing up among the elderly veterans of the 1916 uprising and Civil War. He finds it hard to believe that these quiet men and women puttering among their roses once raised fierce and courageous arms to reclaim their country. The best novels help us comprehend these individual journeys. At the same time, novelists are driven by their own concerns, creating “a metaphor for what is essentially a private ache”, as Tóibín says of Sebastian Barry. Tóibín makes suggestions but draws no easy roadmap, cautioning that “all fiction comes from a direct source and makes its way indirectly to the page or the stage. It does so by finding metaphors, by building screens, by working on half truths, moulding them towards a form that is both pure and impure fabrication.”

When the title of this book was mentioned last week, the audience laughed uneasily, and Tóibín drily agreed that it was not the best marketing ploy. I, however, thinking immediately of Rich and Perry and my own struggles to wrench free of controlling parents, wanted to purchase it on the basis of the title alone. Luckily I enjoyed the entire book. For me, these essays accomplished the highest purposes of such writing: they made me want to reread authors whose work I know well; they pushed me to explore the work of authors new to me; and they gave me insights that I can use in my own work.

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