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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The South by Colm Tóibín – a review

The South was Colm Tóibín‘s first novel, published in 1990. Katherine Proctor, an Irish protestant, arrives in Barcelona in the 1950s having abandoned her husband and ten-year-old son. She discovers the city and meets local artists. Franco’s dictatorship and the still recent civil war haunts the immediate past of those around her. She meets the artist Miguel and they move to a remote village in the Catalan Pyrenees.

As the years pass, Tóibín gives us a few glances of the life of the couple. Miguel, who fought with the anarchists in the civil war, is re-arrested and tortured along with an old comrade and eventually he goes into decline and fragments. Katherine returns to Dublin and the rural Ireland of Co. Wexford with her lover, Michael Graves. There she picks up the relationship with her son, now a grown man with a family of his own.

Tóibín does not tie up the loose ends for us. The plot is allowed to fizzle to a stop and although I found this acceptable I’m sure that some readers will be frustrated by it.

The book is valuable for the prose, spare yet gripping, and valuable also for the mood, the landscape and the drama of the lives lived under it.

This is a taster:

They began to climb again. The road became a dirt track cut into the rock. Down below was a valley of fields and forests. Once they had passed through the first village it seemed once more impossible that there could be any habitation higher up. The jeep was having real difficulty with the track and stalled several times.

She had a real sense now of how high they were: not just because of the cold, but also because of the shape of the rock and the sheer drop into the valley beneath, even the mountains in the distance seemed to be lower down. Michael Graves constantly pointed things out to her: the brown rock of the mountain, the deep blue of the sky, the patches of snow on ridges in the distance, the light green of the pasture and the darker green of the trees that peppered the fields or stood in long rows.

Suddenly Miguel pointed at something just above the jeep and Michael Graves roared: “Look, it’s an eagle,” and caught Katherine’s hand in excitement. The eagle hovered; huge, black and grey, holding itself maybe thirty feet out from the track as the jeep turned the corner. Michael Graves and Katherine looked back and saw the eagle hanging like a piece of paper in the high air.

2 Responses to “The South by Colm Tóibín – a review”

  1. Lee says:

    Tóibín is one of my favourite authors. If you haven’t read it yet, you should try his latest book of short stories, Mothers and Sons – memorable indeed. He also has a very decent website here:

    jb says: Thanks for the link, Lee. I’m working my way through the novels at the moment. But I’ll get round to Mothers and Sons eventually. I’m loving all of it at the moment.
    And there’s that dichotomy again; do I read them all at once, one after the other? Or do I space them out so I don’t find myself in the position of having read them all and not having another one to look forward to? Eh, it’s a hard life.

  2. says:


    I am, a girl from Barcelona and interested at the moment in the Irish literature.
    I traveled to Dublin last month, and I loved it. But to tell the truth, I discovered “The South” in a Catalan bookshop here in Barcelona, I bought it and started to read it. I was captured by this book, the thing is that I am finishing the book right now and all that I can say until now is that his writing is brilliant!

    And the last 23rd of April , I went to my favourite bookshop in Barcelona called “La Central”, in the Raval area, and after looking for more books written in English I saw the last Colm Toibin book, “Mothers and sons”. I can not wait to start reading it.

    jb says: Hi, good to hear from you. I have a friend here who comes from the Catalan Pyrenees, and just today I gave her my copy of The South. The landscape just came so alive for me I thought it would be nice to share it with someone who knows it well.