‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2015.

Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South, is a luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. It’s also a beautifully structured story about history and memory, violence and trauma.

It was first published in 1990 but was reissued by Picador a few years ago as part of its new Picador Classics range (which boasts books by John Banville, Alice Sebold and Tim Winton, among others — if you are interested, the range is here.)

In the introduction to this edition, Roy Foster says it “announced the arrival of a new novelist with a new style — economical, lapidary, incantatory — and a new kind of Irish novel”. It seems strange to think of it like that now, because this is the kind of style I associate with most of the Irish novels I read, but as Foster points out, 25 years ago, this was radically different to Irish fiction of the time, which was largely associated with “short stories in the Chekhovian mode”.

In search of a new life

The protagonist in The South is Katherine Proctor, an upperclass Protestant woman, who flees her County Wexford home, abandoning her (controlling) husband and 10-year-old son, in pursuit of a new life in Spain. (In that sense, the South of the title refers to both the Irish Republic and Catalonia.)

A talented painter, Katherine hankers for a different way of life, free from the constraints of marriage, motherhood and the shadows of her Irish past, and moves to Spain — first to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, then to the mountains of Catalonia — to begin afresh and to focus on her first love: art.

When the book begins, it is 24 October 1950, and Katherine is in Barcelona living in a hotel run by a “fat woman” and “her little mouse of a husband”. She doesn’t understand the language and is feeling isolated, scared and paranoid.

It is difficult for me being on my own and it has been since I left. In the street sometimes I think I am being followed. I try not to move too far away from the hotel. The journey, here, however has been the worst so far. There are men everywhere watching you. I came in from France to San Sebastian and stayed there in a small hotel looking over the beach and the calm sea. I was lonely there. I felt bad. In he greyness of the city everything was closed. The streets were deserted every afternoon. […] I took the night train to Barcelona. […] The moment I awoke I knew someone was in the compartment. The train was moving fast. It was still dark so I could see nothing. I stayed still and tried to keep breathing as though I were asleep.

Though Katherine manages to escape the man who tried to rape her on the train, she’s scarred by the experience. She’s uneasy in the company of men, but when she meets Miguel, an art teacher, she falls in love and the pair move to a small village in the mountains to paint and live a stripped-back (read squalid) but happy existence.

In this isolated but beautiful place Katherine discovers personal freedom with a man who respects her, but she begins to realise that she cannot truly escape her own roots. For in hearing about Miguel’s tortured past in the Spanish Civil War, she comes to understand her own traumas — abandoned by her mother, the family home burnt out by Irish Republicans — from an earlier life.

And while she would like nothing better than to ignore memories of her homeland she cannot because one of Miguel’s friends, Michael Graves, is an ex-patriate Irishman, who serves as a constant reminder of what she left behind.

Written in economical but elegant prose, The South is an effortless read, so effortless it almost feels weightless. And yet this book deals with big themes — themes which often recur in Tóibín’s later work. These include childhood abandonment, the sometimes troubled relationships between mothers and their sons, and the sense of dislocation that travel or immigration can bring when you are cut off from your place of birth.

A circular story

In this novel, Katherine does, eventually, return to the family home at Enniscorthy to try to re-establish a connection with her now grown son. It is a bittersweet experience.

It is a revelation to see how Tóibín manages to encapsulate all the little hurts and the interior struggles of both characters without resorting to over-the-top dramatics. It is that restraint which lends the book its power to move the reader, because we know — or can at least imagine — all the horrible things, all the pain and hurt, that each person is keeping hidden from the other.

The cool detachment of the prose is anything but.

Similarly, while the writing style is sparse, Tóibín describes things with a painterly eye — it is a very visual novel, one that describes landscapes, whether of the Spanish mountains, the Wexford countryside or inner-city Dublin, and the feelings they evoke, through the eyes of an artist:

Fog seeped everywhere in January. In the little warren of houses around Oxmanstown Road where she moved when she returned to Ireland, the smoke from the chimneys didn’t lift, it hung heavy in the air all day. There was ice on the footpaths in the morning; there was a damp and bitter cold. 

If you haven’t guess already, I adored The South. Reading it was an exquisite experience. It’s such a beautiful, heart-felt story and reading it back-to-back with Tóibín’s non-fiction book Homage to Barcelona, written at about the same time, made the experience even richer.

It also helped that it tapped into my (emerging) interest in the Spanish Civil War and allowed me to draw parallels with it and the fight for Irish independence. I also loved the references to art and the “creative struggle” — and I’ve come to realise there’s no other (living) male writer that can write women as well as Tóibín, he really knows what makes us tick.

Five stars.

This is my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy only recently but when I was sorting through a bunch of Irish novels stored in my wardrobe (who needs clothes?) I discovered an older edition, published in 2001, which had been sitting there unread for at least a decade! That means it qualifies for my TBR project, which includes anything in my possession prior to 31 December 2018.

8 thoughts on “‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín

  1. This does indeed sound a gem of a book. I’ve not read much of Toibin’s work – just Brooklyn and Norah Webster (by far the better book in my view) – but have really enjoyed him so this is being added to the list. You’ve also given me a new word: lapidary which I suppose in this context is meant to mean polished?

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    • Yes, I think Foster is using the word lapidary in that sense. It really is polished prose: every word counts and seems perfectly chosen. I remember hearing Tóibín speak about how he writes and he said he polished each sentence and when he was happy with it he moved onto the next one, but he might have to rewrite the sentence several times before he could move forward. This is the process I use to write as well (which is why I could never have been a journalist in the era of the typewriter!!) and I remember being so delighted to hear that because I didn’t know anyone else who wrote that way, editing as they go.

      And yes, you must add this to your list. It does share some similarities with Nora Webster.

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      • I’m an edit as I go person too but I *was* a journalist in the days before computers. Hence why my desk was always in the middle of a sea of scrumpled bits of paper. Just writing the intro was agonising because until I got it exactly right I couldn’t move on …

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  2. I thought I’d read this (because I thought I’d read everything Toibin has ever written) but now I read your review, I’m not so sure. I think I’d better find a copy and (re?)read it!

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    • Funnily enough I had a bit of a clean out of the books in my wardrobe (who needs clothes!) and found another copy of this book, which I must have bought a decade ago 🙄 I’m going to give that one to Oxfam for some lucky reader to discover.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Wintering, Krissy Kneen | theaustralianlegend

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