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The South (1992)

The South (1992)

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3.55 of 5 Votes: 2
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0140149864 (ISBN13: 9780140149869)
penguin books

About book The South (1992)

Toibin’s first novel, published in 1990, is a story of an Irish artist in self-exile in 1950s Spain, told in crisp, stoical prose that nonetheless achieves a stark, insightful beauty. Katherine Proctor leaves her husband and son to go to Barcelona where she takes up with a Catalan painter and a former resistance figther against Franco. Toibin, an Irish writer, knows Spain well enough not to overburden his story with postcard descriptions or name dropped landmarks and is skilled enough to make his description stick with the minimal detail. Barcelona, the villages and mountains beyond, the café life, and the closed world of artists are all vividly evoked in Toibin’s spare, well-tuned prose. Katherine Proctor didn’t flee to a tourist’s Barcelona, she fled to one into which she could disappear. Anonymous cafes, pensions, church squares. Katherine seems comfortable in the isolation and the city’s shadows and silences. She meets Miguel, a kindred soul in his preference for silences and work. She also meets an Irish painter , Michael, who joins the Spanish circle of painters and seems to have an artistic crush on Miguel and a personal crush on Katherine. Both Miguel and Michael like conflicts, though only Miguel has faced the brutal consequences of political conflicts. They make an odd trio, Michael egging Miguel on over a painting that portrays a dead Franco, and Katherine wanting only to work and to leave politics behind, with Miguel somewhere in between. After an exhibition of Miguel’s (minus the Franco painting) makes sufficient money, Katherine and Miguel retreat to the mountains to work and live. Michael is an occasional visitor. Miguel doesn’t tell anyone until they are there that this remote village was the site of his resistance work so on arrival when the police take him into custody he is not surprised, though the others are. From here the story grows in texture and mystery. Katherine and Miguel, released but watched, try to build a lives in the mountains but the outside world nibbles at the thin lifelines that hold everything together. The novel begins in 1950 but unfolds over decades and themes of love, art, family, friendship come together in understated ways. It’s a brilliant first novel, evocative, compelling and startlingly patient and economical in its telling.

Story of a solitude-loving female painter who lives in Spain but eventually returns home to Ireland, about which she has mixed feelings. (Side note, she's from a wealthy Protestant family; Toibin is Catholic.) Follows her from mid-thirties to middle/oldish age, and examines her relationships to art, to religion, to husbands, lovers, and would-be lovers around her, to her mother and children, and to her country. Very clear, simple writing - there are long stretches that feel a lot like Hemingway, though not quite as spare, and it was interesting to later read somewhere that Toibin admires Hemingway a lot. (Also interesting knowing this is his first novel, written in his 30s, because it does also feel like he moved away from the Hemingway feel to a voice that is still very clear and simple, but allows for a little more overt emotion and beauty, in his later stuff like The Master and Brooklyn.) Anyway, I loved this for the understated writing and because I love themes around art, cross-cultural conflict, and repression. (Read somewhere too that Toibin says the book is about silence.) Having recently listened to an amazing Guardian Books podcast with Kazuo Ishiguro talking about The Remains of the Day, I think I'm realizing that I usually like books with beautiful writing about stoic, repressed characters. (Uh-oh, paging Dr. Freud!)

Do You like book The South (1992)?

This sounded like an interesting quasi-companion piece to the Heather Blazing, which I loved, but no. I failed to connect with this one in any way, shape or form, and frankly skimmed most of it. I was about to drop it when I reached the first chapter set in Ireland, which peaked my interest. The Ireland chapters were really the only interesting parts. The main character had in her favor that she was the same generation as my grandmother. That she was a land rich protestant wasn't an issue. Her boredom and dissatisfaction and the aimless choices they led to were just...boring. Pointless.Disappointing.

For far too long, lovers of the visual arts have been able to claim superiority over literature lovers with the phrase "A picture paints a thousand words". This book is sweet revenge. Apart from the fact that painting a picture takes a hell of a lot longer than writing a thousand words, it seems we do not actually need a thousand words to describe a picture. In 'The South' Toibin presents us with the essences of a range of paintings in a cariety of artistic styles with an economy of expression that allows you to not only visualise great artwork but appreciate the labour and the sentiment applied to each canvas. The main charcater spends most of her life in Spain, starting in and around Barcelona and then heading to the Basque region, with the beginning and end spent in Ireland in a privelged family that feel the brunt of the local community's hostility. After the death of her Spanish husband, an artist and former 'freedom fighter', and their daughter, she begins to gain some recognition for her own artwork.I must admit that I felt almost no affinity or sympathy with the lead character. Not because she left her family in Ireland for no clear reason, and not because she ends up living with an artist in Spain, for no clear reason. I do not object to these actions on any moral grounds. I object because there seem to be no clear reasons dictating her actions. It is as if the character has no intention of imposing any of her own will on what happens in her life. She makes decisions, and follows them through, but with no reasoning behind the decision-making. Some fantastic descriptions of natural surroundings and art mark this book as a significant achievement, but an apparently unmotivated heroine reduces the amount of empathy possible from the reader.

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Terrible things happen, but in a calm and understated prose that reminds me of Alice Munro in some weird way. Though of course it's not like that at all: there are letters and diary entries mixed in, changes of persecptive and voice. Yet somehow I kept wanting the book to be more like her. I also felt a strange mixture of frustration and empathy for the main character. I do not understand some of her choices: staying with Miguel during certain periods, accepting a total lack of interest in her work, putting herself and her family in danger, some problem drinking. At the same time, I did want her to find some kind of life that suited her. I'm not really sure whether in the end she did or not. I also find myself simply having to accept the fact of her love for Miguel without really understanding it, though perhaps that is part of the point, of the novel and about love.All in all, I'd willingly give this author another shot.

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