This is my sixth Colm Toibin novel, the first he wrote. It turns out he began his career with a strong and beautiful novel.
It is the story of an Irish woman who in 1950 at age 32 left her husband and 10 year old son to be a painter. She landed in Barcelona after a harrowing train trip and was terrified to leave her pension for days. Her mother had left her when she was quite young so she could live on her own in London; she was happy Katherine had left and funded her for much of her life.
Katherine falls in with painters in Barcelona, in particular a hard-drinking fellow named Miguel. A man from Ireland, Michael Graves, joins in. After having a successful exhibition, Miguel wants to live in a village in the Pyrenees where he spent time during the Spanish Civil War. Though she is hesitant, she commits to living with Miguel and Michael Graves goes with them. Katherine learns about Miguel’s experience in that awful war, including his own unspeakable actions.
Katherine learns that Michael Graves was from Enniscorthy as she was and was, to her mother’s horror, RC (Roman Catholic, I presume). Katherine’s family home had been burned during the Irish War of Independence by the likes of Michael Graves. Miguel sees Katherine’s wealthy Protestant family as being on the wrong side of that guerrilla war.
As the years go on, Katherine’s love for Miguel is stronger and she grows to love the beauty of the village where they live in the mountains. Tragedy occurs after the police come for Miguel and his wartime compatriot Carlos. Katherine eventually returns to Ireland, living first in Dublin with Michael Graves, then making contact with her grown son. She has a rocky time at first and is shocked that her son had married an RC.
One of the appealing aspects of the book are the vivid descriptions of the land as seen through Katherine’s eyes and painted by her. And of course the creation of the remarkable Katherine herself is brilliant: she is both kindly in dealing with others and heartless in leaving her son. She is prudent and hesitant, but rash in throwing her lot in with the frightening Miguel. She endures tragedy and adapts to the changed circumstances of her life.
Colm Toibin, The South, Penguin, 1990, 238 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.