Viking, £20, 346pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

New Ways to Kill Your Mother, By Colm Tóibín

 

In March 2011 an essay by Colm Tóibín appeared in the London Review of Books. It was called "The Importance of Aunts", and in a slightly modified version is included as a kind of prologue to the current collection of essays. The aunts are creations of Jane Austen and Henry James, and stand in, in various ways, for absent mothers - mothers whose absence works in favour of drama and autonomy for a range of central characters.

This opening essay is full of forthrightness and aplomb and insights ("Austen has the ingenious idea of making the sofa, rather than the household, the realm over which lady Bertram reigns"). It is also notable for featuring a female author, for the first and last time. And it makes a benign introduction to the domestic clashes, enormities and adversities which follow. Writers and their families, whether happy (WB Yeats and his wife George, Roddy Doyle's parents) or unhappy (almost everyone else): this subject is the tie that binds these pieces. Since most were conceived as reviews of biographies, the imperfections of lives and works are available to be surveyed with wit and dispassion.

New Ways to Kill Your Mother is divided into two parts: "Ireland" and "Elsewhere". Out of Ireland come Synge and Yeats and Beckett and Sebastian Barry, among others. How these deal with problem parents, real or metaphorical, and problems involving parents, is a central motif. You have Dublin Protestant matriarchs such as Mrs Beckett and Mrs Synge suffering failures of understanding with regard to their sons; you have Yeats and his father exchanging roles in their letters. Other fathers - Henry James's, for example, or VS Naipaul's - have made a hash of the very activities at which some among their offspring excel.

It all makes for intricacy and paradox, often leading to stupendous effects in the works of playful (or wishful) matricides and parricides. In one figure, the destructive-turned-productive impulse is exorbitantly embodied: Christy Mahon, the daddy of them all.

Ireland is a pretty good source of familial predicaments, and these extend to the country itself: the loyalties it imposes and the tributes it exacts. Tóibí* has especial praise for those, like John Banville, like Roddy Doyle, in the business of demolishing nationalist pieties. Killing your mother - or your father - can take many forms.

When it comes to Elsewhere, you have James Baldwin writing off his literary precursors such as Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald; Borges choosing to die and be buried in Geneva rather than his native Buenos Aires in a final gesture of defiance against his mother; Hart Crane jumping into the sea to escape the pressures of home.

These are engaging and illuminating essays, for the most part, but occasionally an overabundance of detail concerning sexual proclivities has a slightly dispiriting effect. Tennessee Williams's bed sheets, John Cheever's ambivalence and duplicity, Borges commending the "ingenuous indecency" of a prostitute: these leave you wanting less, not more, information. However, with the essay on Thomas Mann, things in the sexual sphere become so extreme and fraught and intriguing that assent can hardly be withheld. The sexual confusions, complications and interchanges of the entire Mann family make a great subject for a deadpan, energetic appraisal. Colm Tóibín is, as ever, an astute and entertaining commentator, and an expert guide.

Patricia Craig's memoir 'Asking for Trouble' is published by Blackstaff Press

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