Mothers and Sons, by Colm Tóibín

The mother of all issues
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The Independent Culture

Everyone has had a mother, but there the universality ends. While some of us are lucky enough to have a loving relationship with the one who carried us for nine months, others may not even know who their mum is or, if they do, they'd rather not. Unlike marriage, this is not an arrangement you can change and, if you're to believe Freud, it's not one you can ignore. Such complexities and inexplicable ties are precisely the reason why Colm Tóibín's new book is so interesting.

It's a collection of nine unrelated short stories, exploring the relationship between mother and son. Sometimes it's told from the mother's point of view, as with "The Name of the Game", then it might be the son's ("The Use of Reason") and, in "Three Friends", the mother technically doesn't feature all (she's just passed away), but her ghost is an extremely weighty one, bearing down on her son as he attempts to come to terms with his loss.

Tóibín never spells out just how each mother has affected her son, or vice versa, nor does he need to. Less skilled writers would have used clumsy lines of explanation, making it clear that she is hurt, he is afraid, and so on. Tóibín doesn't need to. It's there in the writing, in the subtext, in the slight variations on everyday tasks: "In the hallway... [her daughters] remained for a second uneasily, unsure which room they should go into. 'The kitchen,' she said drily and led the way, glad that she had left her glasses on top of the open newspaper on the table so it would be clear to them that she had been occupied when they came." (From "A Priest in the Family".) In "A Song", the short, sharp encounter between a long-lost musician mother and her singer son manages to convey years of unhappiness, conflict, loneliness and unease in just a few pages - indeed, sometimes in a couple of sentences: "His name was printed with the names of the other musicians. He always looked at the CD covers as though he were his mother, wondering if she would ever buy these recordings..." Although for me the story wasn't as absorbing, as, say, the shocking "The Use of Reason", it's still a smooth-as-silk read.

Mothers and Sons is not the cheeriest book you've ever come across (the cover is the first clue), but it's an education and it's a wonderful read. It makes you consider your own relationships, and challenge your own behaviour. The stories draw you in, then leave you with plenty to think about. The characters are well drawn, considered, rounded individuals, each with a deep and complex history that is teasingly revealed. "A Long Winter" is especially thought-provoking, managing to pack in alcoholism, puberty, loss, regret, anger, pride, jealousy and horror into one story. And, if you've ever told you mother to "go away" in a fit of anger, read this story and weep.