‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Melissa Steele

Colm Tóibín, one of the great living fiction writers, is renowned for his novels The Master (2004), about Henry James, and Brooklyn (2009), about the joys and sorrows of exile and returning home.

The Empty Family, Tóibín’s new story collection, further explores his themes of loss, exile, yearning and living, however unsatisfactorily, in the past.

Tóibín’s prose is pure poetry—intelligent, rhythmic, flowing, and never dull or awkward or trying too hard. An example is Lady Gregory’s self-aware inte

rnal monologue from the story “Silence”: “she did not want to appear clever. She made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated…. She took the view that it was a mistake for a woman with her looks ever to show her teeth. In any case, she disliked laughter and preferred to smile using her eyes.”

A vastly different but equally exhilarating example of the power of Tóibín’s prose is his riff on watching a wave through a telescope in the title story, “The Empty Family”: “[i]t was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well, utterly focused, just as I was watching it… it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing. Instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to join the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.”

The stories dot centuries and continents with tales of longing and loss that are laced with daring and defeatist acts of passion. Every Tóibín hero is dogged by a past he or she can neither recapture nor resolve, nor forget. There are many instances of characters remembering or revisiting childhood homes only to find that the empty rooms, though haunted by the past, provide no satisfying keys or doorways or explanations of that past, only rooms with familiar smells that now feel smaller and dingier than remembered. When re-encountered in the present, the childhood homes exist as caricatures of their former selves and provides no solace for the grieving and heart-broken.

The settings for the stories that make up The Empty Family are as diverse as Barcelona, Texas, Dublin and New York and the main characters of the various stories include an octogenarian female set dresser, a middle-aged writer of thrillers and graphically violent screenplays, a thirty-year-old Spanish ex-pat who once had Communist leanings, a lady dowager acquaintance of Henry James and a young Pakistani working in a barber shop and selling cell phones on the streets of Barcelona. As varied as their resumes are in these stories, the central characters oddly and surprisingly, and sometimes disappointingly, all feel like the same person. They are loners and exiles who, because of their gender, sexual orientation, era or age, are denied the possibility of socially sanctioned love. They cannot love openly as happily married couples might and therefore are free to experience rare, brief but intensely delicious and dangerous moments of extreme passion; each protagonist is granted tiny crumbs of beauty and intimacy, a few moments of what feels like authentic life, in exchange for a lifetime of isolation, loneliness and secrecy.

“Silence,” the story born from a fragment of The Notebooks of Henry James, shares the structural intricacy and delicacy of The Master, Tóibín’s astonishingly believable, subtle and original fictionalized version of the life of Henry James. Indeed, Henry James makes an appearance in “Silence” but as a minor character. “Silence” is about Lady Gregory, a bright and socially adept young woman who marries a man thirty-five years her senior. Lady Gregory sees her husband as “someone too old to know her” who had, “merely on a whim or a sudden need rescued her or captured her.” Like James, Tóibín is a master of revelatory equivocation: “whim” or “need”, “rescued” or “captured”: instantly the reader understands that both opposing poles of intention and effect are essential and true.

“One Minus One” is an unsent love letter or never dialed middle of the night phone call to a former lover. The phrases, “if I called you, you would say…” and “I promise you that I will not call you” frame the narrator’s recollection of his mother’s death six years ago. He, like all of the protagonists in the collection, knows how to hold back, how not to ask for things from people they won’t be able to give him. He understands that his mother’s death fills him with sorrow but also that “some of our loves and attachments are elemental and beyond our choosing, and for that very reason they come spiced with pain and regret and need and hollowness and a feeling as close to anger as I will ever be able to manage.”

“One Minus One” is melancholy to its cleanly scraped bones but it is a rare story about grief and loss that is utterly free of sentimentality. The tension in the story comes from wondering as the narrator does, if he will have that fleeting moment with his mother one expects where the dying parent murmurs in barely audible whispers or signals with the squeeze of a hand or a meaningful look that all is understood and forgiven; that he is loved and absolved of everything. In the end, he is denied this catharsis but both the narrator and the reader are surprisingly relieved to at least no longer have to endure the agony of waiting and hoping for the possibility.

“The Street” is the one story which ends with a hope for some kind of enduring romantic and sexual intimacy, though the external obstacles Malik and Abdul face are so great that it is a slim hope at best. In all of the other stories, the characters’ fleeting but unforgettable brushes with love and lust are in the past. Enduring love, for Tóibín, endures mainly in memory.

It is both a strength and a weakness of this collection that all except one of the stories feature protagonists who are gifted in the ability to turn away from the person they love and need most but are then cursed to live in memory and in the shadow of that rejected or lost love. The strength is that Tóibín presents a compelling case for such a thing as the human condition. That condition, for Tóibín, is our inability to be present with one another, to love one another in a sustained way. The weakness is that the similarity of all these protagonists, despite the vast range of ages, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and geography, feels finally more redundant than true. We are not as alike as Tóibín presents us. All attempts to love are flawed of course, but they are not all, as the continuity in The Empty Family stories suggests, flawed in exactly the same way.

224 pages | cloth | $29.95 | McClelland & Stewart | ISBN #978-0771084331


Melissa Steele

MELISSA STEELE is the Winnipeg Public Library's 2010-2011 Writer-in-Residence. Her 2007 short fiction collection, Beautiful Girl Thumb, published by Turnstone Press, won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. Melissa is also the author of Donut Shop Lovers (Turnstone Press, 1999). She is currently completing a third collection of stories.

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