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The Master by Colm Tóibín – Book Review

The Master by Colm Toibin

Written by: Colm Tóibín (pronounced “Toebeen”)
Published by: Picador

Colm Tóibín has become an award-winning novelist with his book The Master, which won the IMPAC Prize, the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in 2005. It was also short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2004.

Wexford-born Colm tells the story of the great American novelist Henry James. James moves to England permanently after he tires of his upper-class American society peers. He believes that Europe is far more enriched in history and art than his own homeland.

Tóbín’s style is remarkable. He uses the genre of “biography” and turns it into a fictional novel. Instead of sticking to the more journalistic method of finding facts and laying them out, Colm makes it easier to read by writing this fantastic tale of Henry James’ life. Obviously, the writer is the subject matter for the book. The themes deal in a range spanning life, love, loss, fear, death, happiness, pain and loneliness; all of which inspire writers on a daily basis.

James’ struggle with the loss of so many loved ones features a great deal as he has lost most of his family members and one of his closest friends. One prominent theme throughout the novel is James’ repressed homosexuality. At a time when Oscar Wilde was on trial for his promiscuous behaviour, it was near to impossible for him to even hint at his true self publicly.

[ad#longpost]Tóibín uses flashbacks to account for events in James’ past. They are introduced as merely Henry’s observations on his past but Tóbín successfully blends them in with the present story so that it never feels disjointed or disrupts the flow of the story. Many writers can make this mistake by putting too much emphasis on the occurrences of the flashbacks. Tóibín simply slips them in naturally so that they seem part of James’ thought process.

How Henry James writes is a central part of the story. Edmund White, author of “A Boy’s Own Story,” describes Henry as “the greatest observer we have.” This is evident from the book because James passes his time observing not only other people but himself too. Tóibín focuses a great deal on the writers’ process and how a masterpiece is created. He demonstrates that indeed most writing does come from life experience as James takes large amounts from his own life and transforms them into fiction. It is extraordinary to follow this sequence of thought and discover how observant authors can be.

This can also be seen in an article that Tóibín wrote on John McGahern (an Irish author) for In Dublin (an Irish magazine) in 1985. For such a short piece, he manages to cover John’s childhood, early adulthood and continues up to the present. Even from this condensed article, one can get a true sense of whom and why McGahern is the way he is.

I was extremely impressed by this book and the way in which Tóibín conveys the innermost thoughts and sufferings of this lonely writer. The story is so brilliantly told that one may fail to realise it’s non-fictional. The in-depth exploration of one man’s loneliness and his romantic starvation can be incredibly moving and often frustrating because so much of it is self-inflicted.

Henry James makes a fascinating subject and is clearly someone whom Tóibín greatly respects due to the almost reverential tone used at times. The book is enlightening for anyone with a remote interest in Henry James or even simply an appreciation for good writing. Tóibín himself is a master of his art and I urge everyone to read his work.

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