New Ways to Kill your Mother: Writers and Their Families. By Colm Toibin.

by John Boland

Irish Independent, February 25, 2012

The teasing main title suggests a playful putdown of misery memoirs and earnest tomes about family dysfunction, but the book’s serious thrust is indicated by the subtitle and any matricide that’s contemplated here is purely figurative.

Indeed, troublesome fathers loom larger than bothersome mothers in Toibin’s loosely-linked essays on writers and their families, with little reference to his own family background – for such personal revelations you’ll have to go to his extended piece in last Saturday’s Guardian, which was presumably written to coincide with the book’s publication.

There, among other things, he writes about his father, whose death was so painful to the family that “his name was hardly ever mentioned again”, and about the literary aspirations of his mother, who found her son’s novels “too slow and sad and oddly personal” and who spoke of writing her own book. “She made a book sound like a weapon,” the author observes.

You’ll find that absorbing piece online, though its ideal place would have been as prologue to these essays, which really require some such introduction to put Toibin’s ruminations – written over some years for the London Review of Books and other literary magazines – in helpful context for the common reader.

That’s a small quibble, though, because the essays themselves are engrossing accounts of how particular writers, in search of their own identity, either dealt with problematic parents or were problematic parents themselves – the essay on Thomas Mann is entitled ‘New Ways to Spoil Your Children’, while a not unsympathetic account of John Cheever’s frightful behaviour as father and husband is called ‘New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life a Misery.’

These are in the book’s second section, which is called ‘Elsewhere’ and which considers how the death of Jorge Luis Borges’s aspirationally-literary father enabled the son to get on with his own work and how not having a father figure shaped the ambition and achievements of both James Baldwin and Barack Obama.

The book’s first section focuses on Irish writers – WB Yeats forced to contend with a gifted patriarch who kept making claims on his literary attention; Synge and Beckett having to deal with awkward mothers; Brian Moore forced to escape a stultifying Belfast upbringing; and Hugo Hamilton faced with his own parental nightmare.

Toibin is very harsh on Moore, dismissing the characters in some of the early novels as “stereotyped and tiresome”, while arguing that in later novels “he lost touch with Ireland and never fully grasped North America”, but such strictures are rare in a collection of essays notable for their empathy and insights.

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