‘What writers will do to justify their work, what lengths they are willing to go to become the authors they want to be’ – New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Toibin

With an introductory chapter that discusses the importance of aunts in the work of Jane Austen and Henry James, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that they may be about to encounter a disappointingly dry piece of work in comparison to Toibin’s usual tomes. It doesn’t take long, though, to figure out that this is not the case. There are occasional dull moments in this 330 page work of criticism / biography, but these are far outweighed by the wonderful wit and passion with which the stories are told.

The front sleeve sells New Ways to Kill Your Mother as a work about ‘writers and their families.’ To an extent, that is what it is. But it is also much more than that. Often starting a chapter with a brief outline of a particular author’s family, Toibin then reaches out to give us a snapshot of each of their lives, the bad stuff as well as the good. For me, the most fascinating chapters dealt with John Cheever and the ways he made his own family miserable, Tennessee Williams and the sadness that inflicted his whole life and career once his most loved sister became mentally ill, and how Sebastian Barry confronted a difficult relationship with his father through his art. Each of those chapters managed to upset me, amuse me, and inspire me in equal measures. But if those authors don’t interest you, don’t worry. You have the likes of Beckett, Yeats, Roddy Doyle, James Baldwin, and Barack Obama to choose from. And if you still aren’t grabbed by the list, read it anyway. It might surprise you. For me, one of the most enthralling chapters dealt with Jorge Luis Borges, who as an author, interests me almost as much as Dan Brown. Which is not much. If you didn’t get that.

If there are any negatives to be pulled out of this work, one is perhaps that I felt a chapter about Toibin’s family would have lifted it to another level. He writes so wonderfully about how authors used, abused, and ‘killed’ their families that the absence of his own stands out and disappoints. We do get brief snippets of his dad’s nationalism and life for him as a youngster in Ireland, but I couldn’t help thinking that there was more lurking in the background. Hints of his home life, and the difficulties of coming out to his family, sneak in every now and then, but they stay unresolved. This leads to a feeling that maybe Toibin shied away from what could have been the most interesting chapter of all.

Having said that, the thing that most captivates about this collection is what you do get of the author, and that’s his passion. It is clear on every page that Toibin has gone to town on this work, relishing researching the authors that have inspired and entertained him over the years. They are not always going to be the same ones that entertain or inspire you, and the idea of reading a chapter on Austen or Borges may seem as dull to you as it did to me, but what makes it really work is seeing how passionately one writer writes about others. This is a work about much more than the families of writers, it is about what writers will do to justify their work, what lengths they are willing to go to become the authors they want to be, and how they use the trauma of their life and the difficulties they face to create their masterpieces.

Any Cop?: Although it won’t interest everyone, this is an essential piece of literature for anyone aiming to be an author themselves. In just 330 pages, Toibin manages to tell you nearly all you need to know about what drove his sixteen chosen authors to write they way they did.

 

Fran Slater

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