‘One Minus One’ by Colm Tóibín

The narrator of ‘One Minus One’ addresses his former lover about not just the death of their love but also his mother’s death six years before. He remembers a pivotal moment from his childhood when he and his brother were left with his aunt for an entire summer, without any explanation. There was nothing in that house, “– no love, no recognition, no attention – a place of emptiness and of being emptied”. 

This childhood episode haunts the narrator and shapes his subsequent relationships. 

The moon hangs low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon; there are folds of red in her vast amber. Maybe she is a harvest moon, a Comanche moon, I do not know. I have never seen a moon so low and so full of her own deep brightness. My mother is six years dead tonight, and Ireland is six hours away and you are asleep.

‘One Minus One’ echoes the themes present in the entire collection. These are stories about people who have left Ireland and the comfort of the familiar in search of something new. They are tinged with regret and melancholy. The domestic landscape with its warm hearth and comforting mothers is intertwined with the rain and windswept sweep of the Irish countryside where people suppress memories and desires. 

Tóibín’s skill lies in blending the two so that the characters never quite escape the haunting pull of the land they have left behind. When they do return home, it is to attend a funeral or to end a relationship. Ireland and more specifically County Wexford where Tóibín grew up, becomes a setting for endings and soul searching.

First published in The New Yorker, May 2007, and available for subscribers to read here. Collected in The Empty Family, Viking, 2010