Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

Probably the hardest thing to know about Colm Toibin is how to pronounce his name. After that, reading his work is a smooth ride, with pleasant bumps and grooves along the way.

The author himself pronounces his name as CUH-lum Toe-BEAN. The “lm” in “Colm” is a separate syllable.

In the film, Brooklyn, the name of the young immigrant woman, Eilis, is pronounced AY-lish, though many Irish people would say EYE-lish.

Somehow, this brief look at Irish pronunciation helped me to enter the fictional world of Toibin. The world itself is front and center for me right now, as I’ve read three of his novels and am poised to read more.

My first introduction to Toibin—before I was familiar with the author’s name—was reading the script for Brooklyn, then watching the 2016 movie. Then I read Nora Webster, The Master, and Brooklyn, in that order. Then I watched the movie again, with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the filmmaking that was heightened by the books I had read.

I am now a Toibin reader. I like his style, and I like his stories. He is at ease with his settings. Nora Webster takes place in Ireland; The Master is set in England and Italy; Brooklyn is set in Ireland and, of course, Brooklyn. The time frames extend from the 1890s (The Master) to contemporary (1950s, 1960s, and beyond). The characters range from a fictional Henry James (The Master) to young and middle-aged women as they search for their identity and their unique place in life (Brooklyn and Nora Webster).

Toibin’s style is deceptively simple. He uses dialogue generously, and trusts the reader to place himself or herself in the setting and time frame he has in mind. Except for The Master, which is divided into chronological sections, he does not tell the reader where he/she is, or what year it is. Toibin simply tells the story, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. Not for him the intense detail and sophisticated style of, say, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

What is it about the Irish that makes them such natural and engaging storytellers? I put this question out there without knowing the answer. It’s like the magic in one of their own legends of leprechauns and pookas. It’s just there, and I accept the gift, gratefully.

Of the three Toibin novels I’ve read so far, I am most drawn to Brooklyn. It is the immigrant story told from a fresh point of view. Not Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. Not dire poverty and escape and/or banishment from one’s homeland. Eilis is a 1950s character, with strong family ties, who comes to America freely, is sponsored by a friendly priest, has a job in place and is enrolled in night school. She faces the prospect of a new life and new relationships—as well as the option of returning to the familiar community and people of her birth.

Toibin’s style is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t reach for the right word. The right word—or phrase or paragraph or dialogue—seems to flow effortlessly from what preceded it, and into what follows. I didn’t find myself marking memorable passages. His is an even-handed style that grows out of the story, rather than one that is imposed on the story. The seamless fusion of style, story, dialogue, and narrative is a magical art that is not necessarily Irish but is always impressive. Jane Austen does it as well as anybody.

More about Toibin to come. I am just beginning to put my thoughts together—and I have some more reading to do.

3 thoughts on “Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

  1. Indeed, now I’m very curious to read Toibin’s books. I’ve been hearing about Nora Webster–not sure whether what I’m hearing is about the book or the film. So perhaps I’ll begin with the book. Thanks, Toni, for this review, and for the encouragement to read Colm Toibin.
    Mary Ann McF.

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  2. Here are two great stories about Colm Toibin from Garrett Brown. Thanks, Garrett!

    THE MASTER, of Toibin’s, is a book I’ve continued to re-read over the past 10 years — I’ve read a few of his others but this one does something very special to me — think it’s the interior life, the ups and downs of a devoted creative life —

    Marie and I learned how to say his name from three Irish sisters in a news shop in the JFK Jet Blue terminal — I overheard them, their lovely Irish lilts and immediately, like a silly pandering naif, approached and asked in my American eagerness, “Do you know the writer Colm as in comb with an l — ie Colmb — Toy-bin?” The three looked at me quite puzzled. I went on, “He wrote THE MASTER, about Henry James?” Oh! They all three laughed. “You mean, Col-um Toe-bean” Really? Yes! And then they taught me right there, “See? Like bending down to your toe or toes to pick beans, y’see? Toe…Bean…!” Aha!

    Several years later, and in fact, this last autumn, while Marie was showing our German friend, Hannah, the LACMA bookshop, I had fallen behind and was just beginning my visit to the John McLaughlin abstracts on the 3rd floor of what was or is it still the Broad wing. I’m standing there next to a black and white geometric when a stalwart gentleman marched past and sat down quietly in the chair in front of the same painting. I did a double take. No! Really? Without pause, and thanks to the Irish sisters, I called to him, “Col-um Toe-bean?” Out of his meditation, the dark haired, dark eyed man with worn face, as if scarred, concave cheeks, perked up and said, “Yes?” Of course then I gushed and praised and shook his hand, told him how I continue to reread and revel in THE MASTER — told him, too, about my encounter at JFK with the Irish sisters – we had a good laugh and then I asked him if he had anything we should be on the look out for? “Oh yes, in the spring, a new novel, THE BOOK OF NAMES…” It wasn’t till later, I realized I had my new iPhone with camera and darn, I could’ve asked for a picture together — the total and a bit obnoxious fan! And probably just as well I didn’t.

    There you are, my Colm Toibin stories! He was very sweet, low-key, and a gentle man. It felt like a little miracle to actually meet him.

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