Lovers of Colm Tóibín’s novels (among them Brooklyn, The Master and The Magician) might not know that the Irish author is also a longtime essayist. A Guest at the Feast gathers recent essays that show his full range.
A Guest at the Feast is divided into three sections: personal essays, essays examining the power of the Irish Catholic church and the papacy, and literary essays. The collection’s first essay, “Cancer: My Part in Its Downfall,” opens without fanfare: “It all started with my balls.” Detailing his bout with testicular cancer, Tóibín turns a close eye to its vicissitudes—what he cooked when he couldn’t taste anything, the tedium of chemotherapy, the complications he endured—making the subject funny, fresh and moving.
Part two draws on Tóibín’s youth in a repressive 1960s Ireland, attending a boarding school led by priests later convicted of sexual abuse. His reported essay “The Bergoglio Smile: Pope Francis” offers a more complicated view of the pope and his failures to oppose Argentina’s authoritarian military regime when Francis was a young Jesuit leader. Part three includes an essay on novelist Marilynne Robinson and the way her novels encounter religious belief. “How do you create a religious or a nonsecular protagonist in a novel without making a dog’s dinner out of the book?” he asks, leading the reader through a quick parade of modernist efforts (T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, among others) before settling into Robinson’s novels Gilead, Home, Lila and Jack. This essay, in particular, is a marvel.
But the title essay, “A Guest at the Feast,” is the book’s highlight. This long personal essay (or short memoir) roams through the small Irish town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín grew up, offering anecdotes about the townspeople and his family, including two about his mother, who was unafraid to confront one of her son’s bullying teachers and who read banned Irish novels in the 1960s. By turns conversational and poetic, the essay also shows the first glimmers of Tóibín becoming a writer. Describing a train journey between Enniscorthy and Wexford, he writes, “In that silvery still afternoon light, for several miles you see no roads and hardly any buildings, just trees and the calm strong river.”
A Guest at the Feast is a collection that will remind readers of Tóibín’s power as a writer of more than just memorable fiction. His cleareyed, considered critiques of powerful people and vivid personal essays can make readers long for a place they’ve never seen.