From Publishers Weekly
It's a bold writer indeed who dares to put himself inside the mind of novelist Henry James, but that is what Tóibín, highly talented Irish author of The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, has ventured here, with a remarkable degree of success. The book is a fictionalized study, based on many biographical materials and family accounts, of the novelist's interior life from the moment in London in 1895 when James's hope to succeed in the theater rather than on the printed page was eclipsed by the towering success of his younger contemporary Oscar Wilde. Thereafter the book ranges seamlessly back and forth over James's life, from his memories of his prominent Brahmin family in the States-including the suicide of his father and the tragic early death of his troubled sister Alice-to his settling in England, in a cherished house of his own choosing in Rye. Along the way it offers hints, no more, of James's troubled sexual identity, including his fascination with a young English manservant, his (apparently platonic) night in bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes and his curious obsession with a dashing Scandinavian sculptor of little talent but huge charisma. Another recurrent motif is James's absorption in the lives of spirited, highly intelligent but unhappy young women who die prematurely, which helped to inform some of his strongest fiction. The subtlety and empathy with which Tóibín inhabits James's psyche and captures the fleeting emotional nuances of his world are beyond praise, and even the echoes of the master's style ring true. Far more than a stunt, this is a riveting, if inevitably somewhat evasive, portrait of the creative life.
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The Master may not elevate James to the status achieved by Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, but it’s a remarkable accomplishment. Most readers, regardless of their familiarity with James’s work, will appreciate its timeless themes, including war, family, character, and ambition, and graceful, evocative prose. Tóibín (Blackwater Lightship) offers a humane portrait of the writer in middle age, ambitious and mentally energetic but emotionally aloof. Though focused on five years, he captures all stages of James’s life, from his Yankee childhood and European young adulthood to middle-aged angst. Sometimes Tóibín veers too much into fantasy, mixing up his and James’s voices; at other points, more imagination could have animated the text. Yet, there’s no doubt that The Master is the work of—well, another kind of master.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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