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Review: New Ways to Kill Your Mother by Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín's 'New Ways to Kill Your Mother' is a delicate dissection of the dysfunctional family lives of writers, says John Preston

New Ways to Kill Your Mother
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 352pp.

In July 1907, the mother of the playwright John Synge read a review of his new play, The Playboy of the Western World, in the Irish Times. She did not like the sound of it, writing in her diary, “I was troubled about John’s play – not nice.” Half a century later, the novelist Brian Moore’s mother read his novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. She too was not impressed. “You certainly left nothing to the imagination,” she wrote to him, “and my advice to you in your next book is to leave out parts like that.”

It comes as no surprise to learn that writers should often have had troubled relationships with their mothers, but as Colm Tóibín points out, the real interest lies in seeing how they exact their revenge. They do so in a lot of cases by murdering them – not in cold blood, but metaphorically, on the page.

There is a long and surprisingly distinguished history of matricide in fiction – especially in the 19th-century novel. Jane Austen’s last three novels all have motherless heroines and they do so, Tóibín believes, for a very good reason. “Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can be better filled by… the slow growth of a personality.” Without mothers, Austen’s heroines are free to grow outside of the family’s arena of influence – and to become themselves.

But it’s not only their mothers that writers kill. Fathers are despatched just as brutally. In old age, the father of the poet WB Yeats took up writing, sending the results to his son for comments.

Most of the time Yeats didn’t bother to reply, but when he did his verdicts must have struck like icicles to the heart. “The least good of all your writings,” he wrote of one play, with the clear implication that the rest weren’t up to much either. “It is,” Tóibín writes, “as if Oedipus, Herod and some third force out of Freud’s dark laboratory joined forces.”


For the rest of the review

The Telegraph
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