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The South by Colm Tóibín

The South (1990)

by Colm Tóibín

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This is a truly beautiful story on so many levels. The writing is tight and exquisite. The characters are full-bodied with all of their mysteries and faults. The setting is varied and full, at the end of the book driving me to my own computer to have a look at pictures of many of the seaside venues in Wexford, Ireland. Political (Catalonia under Franco in Spain) and religious controversy (the Church of Ireland versus Roman Catholicism) inserted themselves into this novel's pages but never completely took over the immediate story of the characters as they related to each other.

I was intrigued that this was the debut novel of Colm Tóibín and appreciated what a talent he has for writing about an individual's experience. I have read two other of his novels and plan to read more. It's an exhilarating experience to be under the influence of this author's words.

The South tells the story of Katherine, a young woman, who left her husband Tom and son Richard in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and came to live in Barcelona with a Miguel, a known rebel against the Franco rule. Miguel takes great interest in his fellow rebel Carlos Puig. Both Katherine and Miguel develop a deep friendship with Michael Graves, a man also from Enniscorthy. Katherine, Miguel and Michael Graves are artists who developed their painting skill in an art school in Barcelona under the guidance of Ramon Rogent.

Don't worry too much about the story itself. Just let Katherine's tale carry you along at will. Enjoy the ride! ( )
  SqueakyChu | Nov 4, 2015 |
Toibin's sentences are short and strong (dare I mention Hemingway?). That said, his protagonist is female; Katherine is an Irish woman who leaves her husband and son and relocates to Spain with her mother's assistance. There she falls in with a Spaniard, Miguel, and an Irishman, Michael Graves. They make for a somewhat unusual but improbably comfortable triangle, with Katherine and Miguel forming a unit and Michael Graves hovering around the outside. Eventually Katherine and Miguel move to a remote town and have a daughter; Michael Graves visits occasionally. Miguel becomes depressed, dwelling on his experience in the Spanish Civil War; his depression culminates in a tragic event.

I found the font used for this edition (wide and bold) to be distracting.


"Have you ever read a book called The Magic Mountain?" he asked.
"No," she said.
"It was like The Magic Mountain except more people died. I didn't die." (60)

He never imagined that they would lose the war...everyone knew things would change, he said, but on one believed they would end. Finally, he told her, they were betrayed by everybody, not just by the fascists, but by the Catalan nationalists and the communists. (98)

...she knew...that it was only a matter of days now before she would be blamed and accused, and would have no answer or excuse, when there would be no forgiveness. (102)

This war has not ended yet, in his eyes, or in anybody else's....I just know that I have taken on more than I can deal with. (122)

She was aware that she had begun to observe each thing as though it were a scene, as though she needed to fix it in her memory, as if she might never get a chance to see it again. (141)

"I wish I knew I could spend the rest of my life here," she said.
"Why can't you?" he asked.
"I always feel that I have just borrowed it for a few years. I watch it all the time because I will need to remember it. Maybe that's why I'm painting it." (147)

Her love for him was like breath on glass. (157)

There are friends: other lives to brush against. But there will be no new intimacies like the old ones.There will always be reservations, things one must leave out, events one can't explain without handing over a full map of one's life, unfolding it, making clear that all the lines and contours stand for long days and nights when things were bad, or good, or when things were too small to be described at all: when things just were. This is a life. (165)

For both of us reality rests in being reminded. For me the whole city of Barcelona, every street I use, every day, evokes memories of the years we were together. (166) ( )
  JennyArch | Mar 31, 2014 |
I enjoyed this novel quite a bit, while I didn't love it, I did find myself reading it all in pretty much one sitting. While I did have a few problems with it, overall it was a nice read.

I did find there were a lot more slow parts, more than I would have liked. There were a few times, I wanted the story to push forward and felt few interactions between characters were becoming redundant. But overall, I think for the author did a great job at taking the readers on a journey with the characters. I didn't have a favourite character, but I did find them to be well developed and interesting to read about. There were a few times, I found myself wanting to know what would happen next, and how the characters in the book would progress and how it will affect the rest of the story. Although I didn't have a favourite character, they were written well enough for me to want to keep reading.

I also enjoyed the writing style. It was a good medium between simple to the point, and prose. Both which I like, but this made for a good solid, and fast read, but still got that feeling of a strong and engaging narrative.

Overall, the book is well worth reading, and is one of those books you read on a lazy afternoon. Well worth reading it all in one sitting.

Also on my book review blog Jules' Book Reviews - The South ( )
  bookwormjules | Apr 1, 2013 |
Read the review of Toibin's first novel on my blog. ( )
  johnbakeronline | Mar 24, 2010 |
Katherine Proctor leaves her husband and young son in Ireland to become a painter in Spain. She's a seeker and a difficult person. Toibin explores exile and artists during Katherine's life from the 1950s to 1970s, and how she eventually returns home to reclaim a part of her past. ( )
  Hagelstein | Feb 15, 2010 |
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To?ibi?n's first novel The South, set in Spain and rural Ireland features Katherine Proctor, a painter on the run from a broken marriage. When love in Spain sours she returns to Ireland for refuge with a new found passion for painting.

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