Dennis Deery

Colm Tóibín

June 8, 2007

A couple of months ago we stopped in the town of Wexford on a Saturday when their book festival was being held. Author Colm Tóibín was doing a reading, but we were unable to stick around until he was up. I found a couple of his non-fiction books, Bad Blood and Sign of the Cross, purchased them and left them to be signed and mailed to us. When they arrived in Tramore, I devoured them. Tóibín’s style in non-fiction is very conversational and quite an easy read.

In Bad Blood, he writes of a summer spent walking along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at the tail end of the Troubles. He seems to be almost fearless in his ability to get into some fairly sketchy situations and ask blunt questions, just like we’d all like to do if we could do it without the risk. I felt like I came away from reading Bad Blood with a better sense of what it was like to live in Ireland when relations between the North and the Republic weren’t quite so tame as they are today.

In Sign of the Cross, Tóibín writes about traveling around Catholic Europe. Again, in a very simples style he tells of his conversations with strangers all over the continent. The sense you get is of someone trying to connect with or understand people’s feelings towards the religion in which he himself was raised, something I can sympathize with.

That had been the extent of my exposure to Tóibín’s works until a couple of weeks ago when a good friend gave me a gift of his Mothers and Sons short-story collection. While I thought his non-fiction was a great read, I’ve learned that fiction is Tóibín’s true gift. This collection of stories is one of the best books I’ve ever read, which I suppose explains why I got through it in only a day-and-a-half. Each of the stories is based on interesting characters with tangled relationships, and an interesting and not-always-predictable plot. But where they really shine is in Tóibín’s use of language. Where his non-fiction is conversational and simple (not in a bad way), the language of his fiction is complex and nothing short of profound. He is one of those writers where you find yourself going back and reading paragraphs over and over to fully grasp and enjoy what he’s saying through his characters. I look forward to picking up more of Tóibín’s fiction next time we hit the bookstore.

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