Likely Stories: The South by Colm Tóibín

Feb 20, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A recent reminder that I had neglected the works of Colm Tóibín drew me to one of only a couple of his works I had not read.  The South is the story of Katherine Proctor who abandons her family in a move to Barcelona.  There she meets Miguel, an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War.  This is a thrilling story of art and exile and a search for love.  Note there are several brief adult scenes.  

Tóibín begins the story “24 October, Barcelona.  Night is coming down and there is a hum of noise from the street.  I have been here for several weeks.  I am grateful that the fat woman who runs this hotel and her little mouse of a husband do not speak English.  I remain a mystery to them; they cannot get through to me.  The man in the next room—as far as I can understand a word he says—goes to the opera every night and listens to opera on his radio all the time. // They want to know about my husband.  They found a man who would act as interpreter for them and he asked me: ‘Where is your husband?’  The fat woman was there looking at me and the opera man.  I told them he was coming soon, and I would wait for him.  ‘Where is he now?’ the man asked me, and I told him that my husband was in Paris (5).  […] This was 1950, late September.  I had left my husband.  I had left my home.  I was not clear about where I was going.  I did not wish to be disturbed” (7).  In a letter to her mother, Colm writes, “

While Katherine is not entirely detached from her husband, she wavers on what to do.  Colm writes, “I thought of Enniscorthy.  I thought of Tom sitting in the draughty house thinking about me, trying to come to some conclusion about me.  I thought of what it would be like to be there.  I thought of what it would be like to settle down for the night there with the crows and the jackdaws chattering in the bare oak trees near the river. // I thought of the desolation of the place and I stared at this desolation, this desolation of stone, this stunning, broken-down square behind the cathedral of Barcelona and I knew that I was right to be here.  I knew I had to be here” (12). 

Katherine only communicates with her mother.  Colm writes, “I thought of my mother’s garden in London in late August before I left, when I could not make up my mind what to do.  The soothing garden with the huge cherry tree and the run-down sheds, the distant light in the late afternoon, the grey flagstones of the garden path, the rickety bird table, the faint sound of London traffic, the shadows” (13).  In a letter to her mother, she writes, “I will try and write to you.  The days go by; there are things to do and things to consider.  It is hard, maybe you will understand this, it is hard to do something new now that everything has become habit” (86).  She also left her ten-year-old son, Richard, behind with her husband.

Colm Tóibín’s novel, The South, is a peculiar story of a woman who has one difficulty after another.  She manages, and later in the story, she explains herself.  4 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!