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New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, By Colm Tóibín

Why literary criticism should begin at home

The Irish writer Colm Tóibín is best known for his powerful, contemplative fiction, but has also long been respected as a journalist, literary critic and essayist.

The latter writing skills are to the fore in this insightful and compassionate collection of literary essays, loosely connected by the question of how writers' family relations have intertwined with and influenced their works.

After an introductory piece entitled "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother", the book is split into two roughly equal parts: "Ireland" and "Elsewhere". Tóibín is obviously most at home with Irish authors, writing with conviction and clarity about W B Yeats, J M Synge and Samuel Beckett, among others, but he is an assured and knowledgeable guide throughout this collection – without stooping to condescension as other expert literary critics might. Using biographies, memoirs and the assorted letters, notebooks and diaries of the authors under scrutiny, Tóibín draws connections between their domestic situations and their work, but does so with a light hand, and often refusing the most obvious, cod-psychological explanations.

In "W B Yeats: New Ways to Kill Your Father", we get a fascinating account of the odd and strained relationship between father and son, Yeats's father having been a failed writer, seemingly intent on disparaging his son, and putting himself on a par with his vastly more successful progeny. Similarly, in "Thomas Mann: New Ways to Spoil Your Children", Tóibín is acute on the incredibly troubled relationship between Mann and his son and daughter, the patriarch's reputation casting a long shadow over his offspring.

The essays here are at their best when full of this family stuff, but they don't all explore those connections so acutely. The treatments of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and the US poet Hart Crane are never less than fascinating, but they are more straightforward blends of biography and literary criticism. And while it's great to see writers such as Roddy Doyle and James Baldwin given the same attention and gravitas as Henry James, Tóibín's pieces on them are more conventional in their structure, and don't delve as deeply.

But overall, the breadth and depth of analysis here is impressive. Tóibín has clearly done a huge amount of research and careful thinking, but wears his knowledge very lightly. He is sympathetic to his subjects, but doesn't flinch from examining hard truths. There is a huge amount of unhappiness held within these pages, none more so than in the finest essay in the book, "John Cheever: New Ways to Make Your Family's Life a Misery". Cheever's family life was a model of dysfunction and misanthropy, but he comes across as a deeply conflicted individual rather than the one-dimensional ogre he might otherwise have, such is Tóibín's deep empathy for these writers and their lives.

It is his empathy that makes this such a fine and engaging collection.

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