[Reading Room] A Priest In The Family by Colm Tóibín

A story about a paedophile priest in Ireland? My heart sank at the mere thought. Not really my usual cup of tea.

However, I’d heard enough about Colm Tóibín to be curious. I hadn’t read any of his work, so when this story popped up on the Selected Shorts Podcast, I decided to give it a try (albeit with my finger poised over the ‘skip’ button).

I’m so glad I did.

The story centers around Molly, a septuginarian mother-of-three, who has that traditional symbol of respectability, “a priest in the family.” Not that she shows any great reverence for the idea — or the church.

Molly, modern enough to be learning to email her grandchildren and with a social life better than that of her grown daughters, lives in a village in Ireland, the kind where your neighbours know more about you than you do yourself. Which, in this case, turns out to be true.

Tóibín goes into the excruciating details of Molly’s day and routine — something that would irritate me if handled by a less deft-writer, but which instead spun a web of suspense and reality that made the quiet end to the story pack such a punch.

I’m not a fan of stories where ‘nothing happens’. In this story you may have to watch carefully for the somethings that happen, but they’re there. The story is as restrained as its main character, and just as impressive.

I often find myself growing impatient with ‘literary’ stories, but this is an excellent example of how to write a quiet, literary story without losing readers who love a great character and a good ending.