Colm Toibin: Mother Mary comes to me

Colm Toibin: Mother Mary comes to me
Irish writer Colm Toibin

SINGAPORE - Remind Irish writer Colm Toibin that he has won almost every major literary prize in the West and he immediately says: "I haven't won the Booker Prize."

He is up for the £50,000 (S$100,680) award for the fourth time this year for his play-turned-novel The Testament Of Mary, a retelling of biblical events through the voice of the mother of Jesus.

The roughly 100-page volume, possibly the slimmest in Booker history, is on a shortlist of six including former Booker winner Jhumpa Lahiri's newest, The Lowland. The winner will be announced on Oct 15.

In a telephone interview from his home in Ireland, Toibin, 58, refuses to speculate on his chances of winning.

He coolly recounts how he received the news that he was on the longlist. "I didn't know what day the announcement was coming, so I just opened an e-mail and I said: 'Oh wow'," he says, the exclamation at odds with the even tenor of his voice.

A subtle dry wit underlies his measured vocalisations. Toibin may answer questions with the bare minimum of words, but all are carefully chosen, echoing the taut elegance of his prize-winning prose.

Given that almost every work of his fiction has won some award (see other story), there may not even be room on his shelf for a Booker.

Among others, he took a coveted Costa Award for the Booker-longlisted novel Brooklyn (2009), about an Irish immigrant in America. Considered among his bestsellers, it has sold more than 1,000 copies in Singapore since 2010, said distributor Penguin Books.

Toibin also won one of the world's richest book prizes, the ¤100,000 (S$168,630) International Impac Dublin Literary Award for The Master (2004), a reimagining of the inner life of novelist Henry James. It was shortlisted for the Booker but never took the gold.

Another early contender on the Booker shortlist was The Blackwater Lightship (1999), about three generations of Irish women caring for a young relative dying of Aids. It was made into a Hallmark movie in 2004, starring Angela Lansbury.

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