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New Ways to Kill Your Mother

Author and essayist Colm Tóibín explores the ways that writers' families influence their work.

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New Ways to Kill Your Mother
By Colm Tóibín
Scribner
352 pp.

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Reviewed by Donna Rifkind for The Barnes & Noble Review

Colm Tóibín the novelist is the master of the slow burn. His best fiction – "The Blackwater Lightship," "The Heather Blazing," "Brooklyn" – sneaks up on you, with a gradual accumulation of events, until a specific moment when you realize you're hopelessly involved. It's this cumulative effect that makes his novels seem most artfully lifelike.    

Colm Tóibín the essayist is a more urgent but no less crafty storyteller. The mini-biographical pieces in his new collection, which were originally composed as reviews, introductions, or lectures, explore how writers' families influence their work and how the writing life affects families. Within this common thematic foundation, Tóibín finds an engaging multiplicity of detail. And his critical voice is as seductive as the widely varying voices in his novels.

Tóibín, who was born in the southern Irish town of Enniscorthy in 1955, divides these essays into two sections: "Ireland" and "Elsewhere." (A discursive piece called "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother" serves as an introduction.) The seven essays in "Ireland" entertainingly dismiss any cobwebby clichés about the Emerald Isle and its silver-tongued bards. To this end, Tóibín quotes the always-quotable Samuel Beckett, who confesses a "chronic inability to understand ... a phrase like 'the Irish people,' or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the Union or after...."

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