New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 352pp, £20

The title of this collection of essays comes from a passage in a piece on J M Synge, about his uneasy friendship with the somewhat older, staider W B Yeats: "Yeats had had bohemianism foisted upon him by his feckless father," Colm Tóibín writes. "Synge had done it all alone as a new way of killing his mother."

I wonder whether a better title lurks elsewhere in the same chapter. When Synge was 14, he got hold of a book of Darwin's that offered convincing proof of evolution: "I lay down and writhed in an agony of doubt . . . Incest and parricide were but a consequence of the idea that possessed me."

“Incest and parricide" are sprayed all over this book: Thomas Mann lusts over his 14-year-old son Klaus; Synge's mother lets one of his women friends know how jealous she is of her son's attentions; Yeats ignores his ageing father's artless, pleading boasts about his own literary efforts. And there is infanticide, too: the octogenarian mother of Jorge Luis Borges refuses a drink on behalf of her middle-aged son ("El niño no toma vino"); John Cheever, two weeks before he dies, phones his son Ben: "'What I wanted to tell you,' he said, 'is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I'd tell you that, because sooner or later somebody's going to tell you and I'd just as soon it came from me.'" Killing your mother is the least of it.

As the title and those incidents make plain, New Ways to Kill Your Mother is full of lurid, violent feeling; but the overall tone of the book is one of wisdom and calm. Henry James - the subject of Tóibín's 2004 novel The Master - is the presiding spirit. After a prologue entitled "Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother", the chapter on Yeats and his father opens with a series of parallels between the lives of John Butler Yeats and Henry James Sr (like Borges's father, unsuccessful dabblers in writing). A chapter on Yeats's wife, George, notes her lifelong interest in William James, Henry's brother; and one of two pieces concerned with James Baldwin quotes him asserting that he aimed at "what Henry James called 'perception at the pitch of passion'". And then there's John Butler Yeats's comment on the First World War: "It is enough for me that it stopped Henry James writing a continuation of The Middle Years."

For all his ponderous calm, James sits more easily with lurid feeling than you might immediately guess. The main topic of the prologue on Austen and James is the prevalence of aunts in 19th-century fiction - Tóibín's contention is that this has less to do with the incidence of death in childbirth than with how mothers in fiction get in the way: "They take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality." What he has smuggled in here is a manifesto for the novel: it should dramatise inward conflicts, the growth of the solitary individual, as James did; but there is every reason to expect that those feelings will be murderous in their intensity, and even in their intention.

Tóibín's readings of other novelists are acute; so are his occasional generalisations on the novel - he is "unsure whether it is a story, told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors". He is a supple, subtle thinker, alive to hints and undertones, wary of absolute truths. Only now and then does he drift into schemes and certainties.

Sebastian Barry's play Hinterland was taken in Ireland as a personal attack on the former premier Charles Haughey. Tóibín's assertion of the writer's freedom to take history as raw material is well taken, but he misses the nontrivial point that Hinterland was awkwardly made and constrained. Once or twice in pieces on Irish themes, he seems to get tangled up in what are, in essence, local concerns. Then again, that's to acknowledge the truth, evident at a number of points, that Ireland can feel like an especially tight-knit family, seething with parricidal and incestuous feeling.

The final chapter, about Obama in the light of Baldwin, is sensitive but trammelled. Dealing with race, or with America, he feels that he has to tread carefully. Perhaps that's the biggest lesson this brilliant book contains: a willingness to kill, whether it's your father or a stranger, is the most potent weapon that a writer has.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis