Mothers And Sons, by Colm Toibin

Mum's the most important word for this quiet man of Irish letters
Click to follow

A man's wife disappears, abandoning him and their two sons in their remote part of Catalonia. She was fond of drink, and her husband may have wanted to be rid of her. The point, however, is not what happened but how men endure the loss of a loved one.

The young man, a survivor of poverty and despair, who comes to take her place as housekeeper, brings new possibilities of companionship through his proximity to Miquel, the older son. Set two decades after the civil war's end, "A Long Winter" evokes loss, loneliness, guilt and survival in a few masterly strokes. This, the longest story in Colm Toibin's new collection, could stand on its own as a short novel. As the last of nine stories - and an exception in its Spanish setting - it echoes and elaborates on the book's themes.

Toibin's even, quiet writing seems calculated not to draw attention to itself: it thrives on inconsequence and randomness, is never sentimental, and only incidentally dramatic. When moments of intensity or crisis occur - and there are many here - they are all the more effective, or chilling, for the unchanged tone.

Some stories do their work in the brief span of a few pages, with a minimum of contrivance. A mother drives her son to visit an ailing father. Another sends a son to brighten up the life of his grandmother. One refuses to abandon her priest son, who may once have abused teenagers. Perspectives vary from mother to son, son to mother; Toibin often handles both with equal sensitivity.

Toibin is usually at his best in stories that range, like novels, over long periods. Widowed Nancy in "The End of World" flouts her conservative community's censure to turn her ailing convenience store into a fried-food joint. Toibin throws himself into the setting up of her business with an infectiousness that turns the installation of machinery into an adventure, and the threat to Nancy's enterprise fills the reader with trepidation. Nancy is reminiscent of a mild-mannered Irish Mildred Pierce, but in this case the son follows his mother's entrepreneurial zeal with an avid sense of vocation that makes him neglect his studies. Success, though, fills her with a longing to escape the smell of fish and chips. That's the twist: but, as so often with Toibin, it's not as much in the tale as in the telling.

Aamer Hussein's new collection of stories, 'Insomnia', is due out next spring from Telegram