The Master by Colm Toibin

The Master by Colm Toibin is an expert imagining of the life of novelist Henry James, author of Portrait of a Lady among many others. The Master is a haunting, engrossing book; one that you can lose yourself in but also one that I found fairly easy to put down.

Toibin’s prose is rich, as rich as that of Henry James. His novel is so full of detail, so subtle in it’s portrayal of the novelist, that every moment in it is entirely believable. It would be easy to convince me that James himself wrote the book. Take for example Toibin’s portrayal of James’s romantic attachments–there is one at the start of the novel and a second in the novel’s closing sections. In the first, James enters into a friendship that becomes quite close, one that he becomes slightly obsessive about. Eventually it becomes clear to him that he is entering dangerous ground, the Oscar Wilde trials are underway, people may begin to talk, so he finds reason to break off the relationship. In the second example, he becomes a mentor of sorts for a young American sculptor whom he meets in Italy. He convinces the sculptor to visit his country home in England in the hopes that the sculptor will open a studio nearby. Soon, it becomes apparent that the sculptor is destined for the vibrant art scene of New York and that life in the English countryside with the aging novelist will not be a life the sculptor can accept.

Both of these stories are portrayed with the exact level of subtly that a nineteenth century novelist, a respectable novelist like Henry James, would have used. So subtle that you could easily miss just how profound the attraction between the characters is. Nothing physical ever happens between James and either young man, but a careful reader can feel the attraction and appreciate the loss James experiences each time. The level of depth in the characterization, the beauty of the descriptive language, the fragility of the plot points and climaxes are what make The Master such an entrancing read. Once you are into the book, it becomes a welcoming place, like a visit with an old friend you have not had a chance to talk to in a long time.

The problem is that once you’ve stopped reading for the night, there is very little to compel you back into the story the next day. The plot goes forward and backward in time painting an interesting and complex picture, but it’s a static picture, not a motion picture. It’s exquisite, but it’s not going anywhere. Like a Faberge egg, you can look at it from many angles and always enjoy the view, but if you’re waiting for something to happen, for the egg to hatch, you’re going to be disapppointed.

So, in the end, I’m giving The Master by Colm Toibin four out of five stars. I’m glad I read it, and I am recommending it, but the rewards it offers are rewards the reader will have to work for. I think it is worth the effort.


I first ran this review in 2008 on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  Like an idiot I gave my copy away in one of those give-a-ways many of us were doing in those days.  I should have kept it.  I’d like to read it again now that I’ve re-read this review.  I really should read more books by Colm Toibin.