The Master by Colm Toibin

The Master by Colm Toibin

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 338 pages, 2004

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: Shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. I figured I’d see how many I could read before the prize was announced so I could see if I agreed on the decision, because I’m silly like that.

Synopsis: The Master is a fictionalized account of the life of author Henry James during the last five years of the nineteenth century, when the acclaimed author was in his mid-to-late fifties. Tóibín introduces us to James’s family, friends, and colleagues, as well love interests, and offers a view on how his writing may have affected his relationships and vice versa.

Why you should read this book: The Master is an engaging novel if you’re looking for something with a more gentle pacing, regardless of whether or not you’ve read any of Henry James’s novels. There’s a Victorian era feel to the book, but without the unnecessary word count and fondness for trivial details that are often assciated with authors of the time period. Tóibín’s characters are very average people that invoke a sense of the familiar despite the fact that the story takes place over a hundred years ago. It says a lot for Tóibín’s writing that the book is so consuming despite the rather ordinary events taking place. It’s also nice to see an all-too-rare well-written male character as the narrator, as so many historical novels written in the past few years have focused on the female point of view.

Why you should avoid this book: There’s something almost disrespectful at times about fictionalizing the life of someone famous, even if he is long-dead. There’s so much speculation necessary from the writer, which leads to the reader wondering what’s based on fact and what’s been fabricated for the sake of drama, such as James’s controversial (lack of a) love life. The Master is mainly a quietly absorbing novel, so it’s not the greatest place to go for an action-packed romp.

Opening paragraph:

Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead – familiar faces and others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up. Now as he woke, it was, he imagined, an hour or more before the dawn; there would be no sound or movement for several hours. He touched the muscles on his neck which had become stiff; to his fingers they seemed unyielding and solid but not painful. As he moved his head, he could hear the muscles creaking. I am like an old door, he said to himself.

Fabulous quotes:

His hand hurt him. If he wrote with it, moving the pen calmly with no flourishes, then he did not feel even a mild discomfort, but when he stopped writing, when he moved his hand about, he could, on turning a door handle, for example, or shaving, feel an excruciating pain in his wrists and the bones which ran towards his little finger. Lifting a sheet of paper was a form of mild torture now. He wondered if this were a message from the gods to keep writing, to wield his pen at all times.

As he labored on the story, he did not think in any detail about the children. He gave them names and allowed their governess superlatives with which to describe them. Slowly, however, it became apparent to him that he had imagined for them strange private selves, which, while giving nothing away, maintained a strong resistance to the governess. She did not herself recognize it, and yet, whatever he had done with her words, he had handed young Miles and little Flora minds of their own.

Also recommended: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

Also by this author: Mothers and Sons; Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar; The Irish Famine; The South; The Heather Blazing; The Story of the Night; The Blackwater Lightship; Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border; Homage to Barcelona; The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe; Love in a Dark Time; The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Tóibín belives that working as a journalist gave him a good sense of what his readers wanted.

Would I read more by this author? I might eventually hunt down The Blackwater Lightship, the other novel he wrote that was shortlisted for the Booker, as well as future novels, but I probably wouldn’t go looking for the older novels.

Awards: Man Booker Prize: shortlist, 2004.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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