The blurb on the back of my copy of this books describes it as a "quiet book" and indeed it is, an Irish High Court judge is nearing retirementand about to spend the summer where he goes every year - a holiday house near Wexford. The narrative is part about his upbringing and part about the present day, it's low key, undramatic even when sad things happen and it's utterly mesmerising. The writing is fabulous, I found myself rereading pages just for the sheer pleasure of his prose and there's a cadence about the way he writes that draws you in.
It's also quite short and I think would be an excellent choice for those book clubs where members don't want to be bogged down with 400 pages plus every month.
The House of Names is a retelling of the Greek legends of the House of Atreus. But as with his previous novel, The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin takes a very human, prosaic approach to the story. The Gods who had dominated both Greek legends and the Holy Bible are not there; we just see the ordinary men and (especially) the women of the stories. The goal, I presume, it to help the reader appreciate the ancient world as one inhabited by real people with real emotions and vulnerabilities.
And this starts so well. Clytemnestra is a mother as well as a Queen. Her daughter Iphigenia has been sacrificed by Agamemnon, the king, at the instigation of the gods to help him win the war. Clytemnestra is distraught with grief and willing to do whatever it takes, with whomever necessary, to exact her bloody revenge. Her first person narrative is genuinely arresting.
But then we disappear off to follow Orestes, her son, in third person. This starts off as idle life in a palace under siege, but soon becomes a bit of a road trip as Orestes is abducted and carted off across the land to a remote farmhouse. This works for creating a sense of scale to the land, and the people feel real enough that you can imagine these journeys across the rocky landscape of modern Greece. But it slows the narrative and dispels the sense of chaos and despair that was built so carefully in Clytemnestra’s section.
And then, eventually, the narrative shifts again to a first person point of view of Electra, sister to Orestes and daughter to Clytemnestra. At this point, things get really confusing. Electra may or may not have the gift of prophesy, and she is determined to avenge her mother for the murder of her father. This is the point that the humanisation of the story fails. Without gods, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia is unjustifiable and Clytemnestra’s grief and anger was well founded. Why, then, would Electra side with Agamemnon over her mother? In a half-hearted attempt to explain this, Electra says that the gods have gone away; that the people of the palace were privileged to walk among the gods for a while, but those days are gone. This explanation doesn’t quite carry.
The rest of the novel is just plain paranoia and madness. We lose track of who is trying to double cross who; there are bodies piling up all around and we lose all sense of character and emotion; it is just a series of events with little purpose. The land is at war; it has always been at war; it will always be at war. Apart from a very brief reprise of Clytemnestra, the second half of the novel is a bit of a slog.
At the end, it isn’t quite clear what the purpose of the novel has been. Neither is it really clear whose story is being told. After all, Clytemnestra, by far the most engaging character, is all but written out after the first quarter. Orestes and Electra are not really very interesting; and the other characters are really given little more than supporting roles. There is not enough continuity of purpose; there is no continuing quest. But the opening section is still sublime.
Nora Webster, mother of four, Enniscorthy, late 1960s. Recently widowed.
This is a story of a phoenix rising from the ashes. Initially caught up in grief and devastation as her husband Maurice dies, leaving her in a financial mess and social isolation, Nora gradually begins to assert her own identity.
There are many little sub-plots. The plight of the boys, sent to stay with their aunt during Maurice’s illness, returning with stammers and nightmares. The girls leaving home to set up careers or engage in politics. Nora’s position with Gibney’s, a large firm run by the husband of a school friend. Most of these stories just spiral off into nothing, but chapter by chapter, we see the emergence of a confident and independent Nora. As a widow, she no longer had to ask permission to do anything. She is not subject to the restrictions of the young and single; she is not bound by marital duty. In 1960s Ireland, Nora gradually begins to see that she has a rare and favoured status.
The novel begins slowly and it is hard to feel involved with a large and somewhat dreary cast. The hooks and intrigues that are used to draw the reader in are left frustratingly unanswered. But piece by piece, the novel builds a momentum that is as much societal as it is personal. As Nora changes, so too do those around her. Each of her four children is able to make choices that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier. We start to see the introduction of consumer goods, quiz nights, fancy clothes. There’s even a brief flirtation with the concept of homosexuality as a lifestyle rather than a sin.
Colm Toibin writes in a plain style; he doesn’t hide important detail in ornate and obscure language. Yet despite the plain speak, the scenes are constructed immaculately. They are vivid, real and fully immerse the reader.
Toibin’s previous novels have often ended almost in mid sentence. It’s as though he gets to a point and just decides he has said enough and stops writing. This novel is of that type; there is no ending as such, just a feeling that Toibin is done.
Some readers may find Nora Webster a bit drab and dull; actually it isn’t. For this reader, at least, it is a novel of transition and hope. Going hand in hand, there is the emergence of the individual, and the emergence of a nation state. ****0
By Lady Lazarus
This is a collection of short stories all around the theme of 'Mothers and Sons', sometimes the focus is more on the mothers, and in others more on the sons. The stories were all set in Ireland except the last, much longer one, which appeared to be set in Spain (and which I didn't particularly like). My favourite was the story about the mother whose husband dies and leaves her penniless but who opens her own chip shop, and the relationship with her son who thinks that he needs make no more effort at school as he will inherit the business. As is usual in a collection such as this, some of the stories didn't work so well for me, but on the whole it was a thoughtful and interesting book.
Cached thread from google
agnesd 21st August 2006 01:25 AM
The Master/Colm Toibin
Just Started The Master by Colm Toibin. Very good so far. Novel about Henry James. Can someone puleeezze tell me how to pronounce his name. I know its Gaelic but can't figure out Toibin.
Starry 21st August 2006 09:54 AM
As far as I know it is pronounced Toy-bin.
I have this book on my TBR pile, so do let us know what you thought of it, might make me push it to the top
Mungus 21st August 2006 11:35 AM
And Colm is pronounced as you might guess, or listen to the link on this page for a nice Irish accent.
megustaleer 21st August 2006 12:57 PM
A most interesting effect can be achieved by clicking on the 'listen' button for a second, and third name without clicking on the 'stop' button first!!
gerbooks 22nd August 2006 07:26 PM
Hi, the correct pronounciation for Toibin is Toe-Been. He is Irish and so am I so I'm pretty sure.
dumpling 23rd August 2006 11:51 AM
It's been a while since I read The Master, so I don't remember much of why I liked it, just that I did. Very much so. I do recall that it made me feel as though I had a great insight into the mind of Henry James, though naturally based entirely on Toibin's speculations. And the book also made me want to read some Henry James, even though I've never been a fan of his since attempting The Turn of the Screw. (I should add that I still haven't read any Henry James, but I intend to!)
agnesd 24th August 2006 11:41 PM
I loved The Master. Just finished it. It's an odd book. It's like the Victorian, dramatic version of the Seinfeld show, "A Book about Nothing". They really had nothing to do but make mountains out of molehills. It was an interesting observation of a specific segment of society. I thought the segment about the Civil War especially interesting from the point of view of a family with boys in the war. I know that it was based on many factual accounts of James's life, but there is still the element of the authors interpretation. All in all it was well worth reading. I highly recommend it.
Brightphoebus 30th August 2006 08:43 AM
I read 'The Master ' eighteen months ago and it has remained one of those 'stand out' reads for me. It is written with grace and compassion, tenderness and insight. Has anyone read Toibin's "The Heather Blazing"? Although set in Ireland 100 years or so later the quality of his writing had the same effect on me, that 'hairs raising on the back of the neck feeling' where you feel you have connected mysteriously to another person and through them to the whole of humanity.
This is my first post and I'm still trying to get the hang of how the site works but I'm thrilled to have come across it and will keep trying.
agnesd 30th August 2006 01:43 PM
I completely agree with your analysis of The Master. I just love book discussions. Everyone brings unique language in their interpretations. I will have to read The Heather Blazing Have you read Arthur and George? I think you would enjoy JuLian Barnes's writing style.
dumpling 30th August 2006 03:23 PM
This may need a new thread, but I enjoyed Arthur and George even more than I did The Master.
megustaleer 30th August 2006 03:53 PM
Brightphoebus, welcome to BGO. You'll soon get the hang of the place, and if there's anything you need to know just ask, we are quite a helpful bunch.
Perhaps you could post a bit about yourself and your taste in books on the introductions thread.
dumpling, do add your comments to the Arthur and George thread.
Brightphoebus 31st August 2006 08:18 AM
Thanks, Agnesd and Dumpling, I'll definitely try Arthur and George - I think I didn't get on with a much earlier Julian Barnes which put me off trying it, but I will now.
yorkshire rose 31st August 2006 07:57 PM
I loved The Master, it really made me want to read Henry James. It was just so clever. It was tender and delicate and a bit like a good radio play you put part of yourself in it as you read it. I liked Arthur and George too, although I prefered 'History of the world in 10 1/2 Chapters' and I love 'Pedant in the Julain Barnes' collection of food columns from the Saturday Guardian
Grammath 1st September 2006 11:55 AM
Blimey, it must be a work of staggering genius in that case! I, for one, would take a great deal of persuading to ever pick up a Henry James novel again.