In Irish author Colm Toibin's collection of nine haunting and beautifully written short stories, there's a mother's decisive fear of facing the truth when she hears that her son has been arrested over accusations of sexual abuse; a mother battling her son's depression while also coping with
a husband left bedridden after a stroke; and a son who was abandoned as a child then suddenly hears his mother singing in a pub.
There's also another son who, after his mother's funeral, goes out partying with his mates and awakens to all things sexual one night on a beach. In these stories, sons and mothers and lovers and friends are constantly grappling to understand each other and themselves,
and the emotional canvas of familial expectation is as rich and as unexpected as life itself.
In the first story, "The Use of Reason," alcoholism lurks just below the surface. An art thief living in Dublin realizes he may not be able to rely on the discretion of his mother as he once first thought. Having stolen a valuable Rembrandt, he's anxious to unload the work to a pair of Dutch criminals.
Unfortunately, his mother just doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut.
In "The Name of the Game," we see a mother forced to provide for her son when, after the death of her husband, she inherits his supermarket
- along with all of his debts. Suddenly faced with certain poverty, she learns to be tough and competitive.
On the advice of her suppliers, she takes a risk and enlarges the store into a chip and burger shop.
Perhaps relying more on her own tenacity than on the family's dwindling resources, this mother gradually remakes the business and her life, in the process
discovering that her son has a good head for numbers. He helps her muddle through with the accounting and eventually enables her to prepare the way for her retirement.
Each story is infused with the myriad attributes of human emotions: the heartbreak over the loss of a parent, a love that is betrayed, and the inevitable disappointments that come when you realize that your son, mother, or even sibling is perhaps not the person who you once thought they were.
While the smaller stories provide small vignettes of anticipation along with despair and even acceptance, the longer stories have a luminosity all of their own. The final story, "A Long Winter"
(the only story not set in Ireland), is about yearning and defeat, centering on a son's concern for his alcoholic mother when the needless cruelty of his father causes her to disappear into the harsh, bleak Spanish winter.
As the boy joins the townsfolk to spend his days desperately searching for her, he must also battle his hidden desires, a long dormant attraction to members of his own sex.
Throughout these stories, Toibin courageously reiterates the truth about love and families and the ties that inevitably bind us together. Written in the author's trademark melancholic style, this collection contains many small gems.
The most striking facet of these stories is that the author presents the reality of families, whether they are strained with dysfunction or pleasingly content.
In the end, Mothers and Sons is often heart-wrenching and bittersweet, but these tales are always thought-provoking, evoking the universality and timelessness of human relationships and the real angst of ordinary people who are just trying to cope with life.