I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Shameless Review

Sometimes the best way to really get to know a writer is by reading their books from A to Z, starting with their first novel and working your way through. I did this recently with Colm Toibin, the celebrated Irish author. I'm still not sure how to pronounce his name by the way; is it Toe-been? Toy-bin? I seem to remember seeing Toe-been somewhere, but I can't be sure. Any idea?

The South was his first book, published by Serpent's Tail in 1991. It won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize in that year. I was intrigued by the story: an Irish woman runs away from her husband and young son, ending up in Spain, where she falls in love and devotes herself to painting. The book covers the subsequent undoing of her fantasy life in Spain and her return to Ireland as an older woman. There seemed to be something to look forward to here, with an endless list of sparkling reviews.

The writer did force me to sit up and pay attention. The prose is carefully pruned into something elegant and dreamy. We instantly fall under the spell of this lyrical style. This writer does know how to wield a powerful pen. It was a shame then to feel jolts as time rushed forward, as key moments were left behind without being explored. Some reviewers have praised the book for this quality. Don Delillo said: "Toibin, like his characters, never says too much and never lets us grow too comfortable". The "never says too much", in the end, became a problem for me.

The main character, Katherine, has abandoned a 10-year-old boy (the leaving of the husband we might accept). We never get the sense of what this does to her. Does she care? Is she so cold-hearted? It is hard to feel for a woman who can so casually walk away from her own child, and to not have that explained adequately. I was willing to understand, but the author didn't want to help me. She later loses another child, and this is mentioned in passing! Katherine turns out to be living inside a hard shell, and yet we are supposed to feel for her and her love of painting.

I hoped there would be some kind of redemption, some kind of twist that would help me understand her. There was very little. We learn very little about her true feelings, even after tragedy strikes. This makes it hard to feel any empathy. She happily takes money week in and week out from a mother she doesn't get on with. She returns to Dublin and tracks down her son; she needs money from him. He and his new wife are too good to this woman who has been so selfish for far too long. The author doesn't explore the situation these people find themselves in.

By the end of the book I had no desire to see anything develop. I didn't want to hear about how Katherine is forgiven without having to face up to herself. She flees one man and a child to find another man and a child, and then loses them in some strange kind of punishment. That is all it is, however. I wanted to know more about what was inside her head. What was inside the other characters' heads?

The writing is beautiful, but there wasn't enough substance here for me. I will take the time to read Toibin's later books though, in the hope that there will be something more to my liking. I mean, he was nominated for the Booker, wasn't he?

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