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New Ways To Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families

by Colm Toibin

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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New Ways To Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families
© Scribner
Scribner, June 2012

With its tight, cohesive thesis on writers and their families, Colm Toibin's (The Empty Family) excellent collection of essays New Ways To Kill Your Mother is the product of a writer with both an impressively patient and committed mind for research as well as an indefatigable love of literature. Those readers familiar with Colm Toibin's excellent fiction could imagine that the author has been working towards this collection since the publication of his first novel in 1990; many themes and literary references at work in Toibin's novels are revealed here, extrapolated straight from the source.

With the exception of a free-floating preamble of an essay on Henry James and Jane Austen, New Ways To Kill Your Mother is divided into two sections: essays about "Ireland" and essays about "Elsewhere". Each brilliantly renders a renowned author amidst their incompatible family; with an impressive breadth of research, Toibin shows how each of these familiar literary names not only struggled to find their identity amidst their clan but how they also sought professional acceptance among literary circles. Further, the shadow of one's lineage proves equally hard to reconcile for many of these writers. In an essay on Sebastian Barry and early 21st Century Irish theatre, Toibin explains,

"there was only one world, the one that had collapsed and had brought down a reign of terror, or a reign of madness, with no other world come to replace it. These men were static villains, caught in dramatic headlights, willing to destroy, living in a dream of the past."

By expanding the literary concept of "the father" to include "the fatherland", Toibin allows his essays to venture into the realm of political and geographical history with as much confidence as they address the immediate family.

On their own, these essays are frightfully good, but together New Ways To Kill Your Mother results in something more. Toibin is a writer's writer, and one clearly influenced by many great literary classics. Taking into account the selection of authors he includes in New Ways, as well as the heavy lean towards Irish literature, it could be considered that this collection of essays is Toibin's attempt at confronting his own literary family. While Yeats, Borges and Beckett may have directly influenced Toibin's mesmerizing prose, these writers (and really all those mentioned in New Ways) are the minds that have drastically shaped the current state of contemporary literature. Tobin may be working through some things privately, but those readers who lean towards the literary can join him in confronting your mutual parents.
If this collection has any faults, they are connected to the high expectations Toibin has of his readers, as one needs to be extremely well-versed in literary classics to get the most out of this book. Essays on John Synge and Brian Moore may fall flat for American readers, as there is not a lot to connect without having read their work. However, since New Ways deals predominantly with the lives of writers (as opposed to what they've written) many essays can stand alone without prior knowledge of the discussed texts. For instance, one does not need to be a scholar of Hart Crane to appreciate Toibin's descriptions of his poetry:

"In his poems he worked a gnarled edgy sound against the singing line; he played a language dense with metaphor and suggestion against images and rhythms of pure soaring beauty. His syntax had something hard and glittering in it, utterly surprising."

Toibin's grace as an essayist glows through his text as he compassionately recounts anecdotes of Tennessee Williams and his disturbed sister, Beckett and his mother, W.B Yeats and his father; these stories are fascinating and express a deeply relatable heartbreak as Toibin delves into the knotted roots of their difficult family dynamics. For example: as W.B. Yeats found his literary notoriety rising, he also found a desperate competitor in his father. In a series of unanswered letters, proud father John Butler Yeats consistently wrote his son of his quixotic plans to become a famous playwright. He spent years talking about his play without writing a single scene, and with each new letter, John Butler further positioned himself to be broken by his own son. As Toibin explains:
"In the annals of letters between father and son, there is no starker enactment of a slow and humiliating murder than in the letter about writing between John Butler Yeats and his son. The old man is an infant, innocent in his pride and hope, the son distant, godlike and all-powerful, ready to ignore and criticize and quietly destroy. The son is cold and ruthless; the old man desperate to be murdered. It is as though Oedipus and Herod and some third force out of Freud's dark laboratory had joined forces."

Toibin effortlessly expands these tensions between parents and their children to include the more private struggle of understanding and accepting one's own sexuality. It may seem obvious that homosexually is one of the most prevalent of the titular "ways" to complicate a family, but Toibin shows that that uncertainty and struggle with acceptance is different for each of these writers, despite their shared profession. Thomas Mann, for instance, finds his attraction towards the same sex pointed towards his confident and moderately successful son Klaus. As taboo as that may be, it's interesting to see how that attraction lines up with John Cheever, a gay man uncomfortably and aggressively stuck in a heterosexual marriage, fenced in by white picket.

New Ways reminds readers that sexuality is not simply a characteristic, but a uniquely defining facet able to shape how these people grow and how they write. And, when situated in the context of contemporary literature as a whole, that struggle with sexual identity could directly coordinate to how we read and write today.

New Ways To Kill Your Mother asks a lot of its readers, but the book is not entirely out of reach to the lesser well-read. Those who are familiar with all of the writers Toibin discusses will surely be the most receptive audience, but Toibin does his best not to exclude those with a more casual library. In fact, New Ways To Kill Your Mother is such an impressive feat that some might even take its publication as an invitation to return to the classics, and as a welcomed challenge to become a better reader.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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