MOTHERS AND SONS by Colm Tóibín (McClelland & Stewart), 311 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Quaint title aside, these stories - Colm Tóibín's first collection - aren't celebrations of Hallmark-card family unity, complete with bucolic Irish settings. In at least half of them, the mothers and sons barely exchange a word. One pair haven't spoken to each other in 19 years. The mood is as grey, overcast and shadowy as the climate.
Tóibín's big theme is the failure - you might say the impossibility - of communication. It's made his works difficult to adapt to the big or small screen; the mysterious machinations of the human mind and heart are hard to make into compelling visuals. But on the page, they can often make hypnotic reading.
The book opens with a strong tale about a thief who's trying to get rid of a stolen Rembrandt, which he's buried in a mountain. The narrator is an analytical criminal who lives life like a chess game. The only unknown variable in his scheme is his heavy-drinking mother.
This story's echoed in the book's final tale, a novella about a Spanish man whose mother - also a hard drinker - has disappeared after a family fight. She may or may not be buried beneath the winter snow.
Tóibín's more successful with longer narratives. In The Name Of The Game, for instance, a widow hides her debt from her family and the residents of her small Irish town, and that secrecy irrevocably separates her from her own son, whom we see as a young boy, an entrepreneurial teen, then a disillusioned young adult.
Tóibín's vignettes seem more forced, whether set at a crowded pub or a tense car ride home to visit an ailing family member.
What saves even the weaker tales is Tóibín's precise use of language. A phrase like "the sound of his car had died down in the distance" reveals as much about a character's state of mind as any words she chooses to speak.
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