The Master

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2004, 12:00am

The Master

by Colm Toibin

Picador $105

The Master is a fictional account of five years of Henry James' life when he moved from failed playwright to renowned novelist. It opens in 1895 in London, when James is in his 50s, and rehearsing his play Guy Domville. Too nervous to watch his own opening night, he attends Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, instead. Wilde's play is a smashing success, his own is a disaster. Devastated, he flees to Ireland and retreats into fiction writing, but later returns to London. The narrative focuses on his relationships, particularly with his sister, his cousin, a friend's butler and a sculptor. It reveals his unconsummated homosexual longings and his attachment to intelligent women. James emerges as a sad man whose talent is to observe life rather than take part. The Master was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year.