Book reviews


Do you ever go read something so good that when you attempt to write a review, you think to yourself, who am I to make comment on this author’s work? Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin falls into that category.

Each of the stories in this collection left me feeling completely sated. I found myself finishing each story and then putting the book down to do something else while I mulled over the story I had just read for a while.

The Age of Reason was my favourite story in the collection. The main character is a solitarily-natured criminal who master-minded the theft of a priceless Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ along with some other fine art.


The criminal uses his own brand of reasoning (threats and violence) to make other people behave as he wants them to, although he struggles to convince his own mother not to talk too much about his criminal activities. His character was formed by a stint in a Youth Detention Centre, where violence and erotica became entwined in his psyche, and by his alcoholic mother, who continues to use her son to protect her when her own behaviour isn’t acceptable. While the criminal doesn’t particularly value the stolen Rembrandt portrait as art, he believes that the woman in the painting looks as if she would be difficult to reason with.

A Song is a sad story about a young man who sings in a pub band, whose mother was a famous singer in the 1970’s. The young man hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 20 years, since he was nine years old, when he found himself in a pub where she was singing. They noticed each other and seemingly connected, although they did not speak to each other. The young man left after her song without learning if his mother recognised him or not.

The Name of the Game is another sad story. (Come to think of it, all of the stories in this collection are sad). A widow who found herself left with a failing family business and a hungry family built up the business with the intention of selling it for a better life someplace else, but her decision to sell disappointed her son who had expected to run the business himself someday.

In Famous Blue Raincoat, a teenage boy discovers a pile of old records, amongst them a record by a band which his mother and his dead aunt sang in, long before the boy was born. The band was always on the verge of enormous success, but they never quite made it. The son blindly transfers the records to CDs, telling his mother some of the songs were great and wanting to listen to them with her, without understanding that it breaks his mother’s heart to hear her dead sister’s voice again.

Who would want a Priest in the Family in this day and age? No, me neither, and this story goes exactly where you just thought it would.

The Journey tells of a woman collecting her depressed son from hospital and bringing him back to the family home to care for him. The woman’s husband is recovering from a stroke, and waiting for them at home. I felt depressed reading this story, on behalf of that poor woman.

Three Friends shows that life goes on for the living after a death. After Fergus’ mother dies, his friends come to her funeral and wake, and later collect him for a night out. They go to an all-night rave at an isolated beach, then swim in the morning. While they are swimming, Fergus and one of his friends, Mick, become filled with desire for each other, and the story finishes on the cusp of the two becoming lovers.

A Summer Job is the story of a grandmother who is desperately attached to her favourite grandson. Without going too much into the plot, this story has left me conflicted about the character’s motives, as I can’t decide if the grandson’s behaviour towards his grandmother or his mother stemmed from love or from a sense of duty.

I liked A Long Winter, the longest, and last story in this collection the least. An alcoholic mother disappears in the first snow of winter in the Pyrenees after a fight with her husband over her drinking. The son is grieving for his mother and missing his brother, who has gone to serve in the military for his two years of service. I wanted this story to have a definite end, and it didn’t.

Generally I prefer happier stories, but as I said earlier, who am I to quibble with someone who writes this well?






Comments on: "Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin" (6)

  1. Love this collection!

  2. Ooh, I haven’t read this collection – in fact, I haven’t read any short stories of his. Must get hold of this. Great review – thanks! Ha! I don’t think any of his books are exactly happy either… 😉

  3. Each of the short stories in this collection had enormous impact. I think you would like these, even if the subject matter is sad. The one novel I’ve read by this author was sad too. Memorable too, which is my definition of a great book.

  4. I’ve not read any of his short stories either; with such a recommendation this must be my introduction to his short story writing I think. Whatever I’ve read of Toibin’s seems to demand to be read slowly. At times (with Norah Webster for example) I found this a little frustrating although I generally do read slowly and much prefer to do so. I’m wondering if short stories might suit his style even better than his novels (which I love).

  5. Hi Sandra, I just can’t give the short stories in Mothers and Sons enough praise. I usually race through my reading, but had no choice but to stop and reflect with these. Let me know what you think if you get to this collection, I’ve only read one of his novels so am interested to compare. 🙂

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