The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Colm Toibin is a personal favorite (see previous reviews of Mothers and Sons and Brooklyn here) so I was delighted to see that a new short story collection, The Empty Family, was on tap for 2011 — and I was not disappointed with the results. I understand that short stories are not to everyone’s taste, but if you have any interest in the genre this is an excellent addition.

Toibin takes an unusual approach to his short story collections, at least in my experience. They are not linked in the sense that they feature the same characters or surroundings, a relatively common device. Rather, his collections take themes (“mothers and sons” or, as in this case, “empty families”) and use that as a link for the stories. I think I am more inclined to short stories than many readers are; I’ll admit that Toibin’s approach of linking an underlying theme, but using widely varied settings, makes his collections even more interesting to me.

The Empty Family, however, has another continuing theme which adds even more interest to the collection. As the stories unfold, the central character is returning to a “home” or place of previous experience — Ireland or Barcelona — which, in addition to the missing family, adds a second layer of reminiscence to the experience.

Let me focus on the title story where an Irish imigrant to the United States (San Francisco was his home there) has returned “home” to the land of his birth and upbringing. Toibin introduces the concept:

I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on the old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky.

I have come back here. In all the years, I made sure the electricity bill was paid and the phone remained connected and the place was clean and dusted. And the neighbour who took care of things, Rita’s daughter, opened the house for the postman or the courier when I sent books or paintings or photographs I had bought, sometimes by FedEx as though it were urgent that they would arrive since I could not.

Since I would not.

This space I would walk in now has been my dream space; the mild sound of the wind on the days like this has been my dream sound.

You must know that I am back here.

Toibin fills this in with memories of his time in San Francisco:

At Point Reyes there was a long beach and some dunes and then the passionate and merciless sea, too rough and unpredictable for surfers and even paddlers. The warnings told you not to walk too close, that a wave could come from nowhere with a powerful undertow. There were no lifeguards. This was the Pacific Ocean at its most relentless and stark, and I stood there Saturday after Saturday, putting up with the wind, moving as carefully as I could on the edges of the shore, watching each wave crash towards me and dissolve in a slurp of undertow.

I missed home.

I missed home. I went out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home.

And what is home?

Home was also two houses that they left me when they died and that I sold at the very height of the boom in this small strange country when the prices rose as though they were Icaraus, the son of Daedalus, warned by his father not to fly so close to the sun or too close to the sea, Icarus who ignored the warning and whose wings were melted by the sun’s bright heat. The proceeds from those two houses have left me free, as though the word means anything, so that no matter how long I live I will not have to work again. And maybe I will not have to worry either, although that now sounds like a sour joke but one that maybe I can laugh at too as days go by.

I will join them in one of those graves. There is space left for me.

Yes, that is a lot of quotes and not much interpretation from the reviewer, but it is a summary of the strengths of these stories. Toibin is a master wordsmith when it comes to evoking memories and, in the Irish stories in this book, that is exactly what he does. The narrator has left Ireland, but part of him — a large part — remains there — and in the best stories he (or she) has returned. They are exceptional examples of the genre.

My own favorite is “Two Women”, the story of a movie set designer who has returned to Ireland from the United States on a project. I am not even going to try to describe it — suffice to say, it is one of the best short stories that I have ever read. If you like Toibin and the way that he can capture moments, I am quite sure that you will share my opinion (which is why I am not attempting an evaluation).

The Barcelona stories in this collection did not land quite as well with me. There is nothing wrong with them but Toibin uses them to explore various homosexual relationships and, for this reader at least, they did not share the power that the Irish stories have — that is a comment based more on my interests than it is on the strength of the stories.

Short stories are not for everyone but, if you appreciate the genre, this is a particularly good collection. Toibin has the ability to take his substantial skill and make it work in the shorter form. In this collection, the central theme of people who are contemplating their “empty families” has been developed fully through a number of different lenses — while not every story succeeds, there is no doubt that most do. If you appreciate good writing, this is a collection that should not be missed.

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22 Responses to “The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    That’s odd, Kevin, because Point Reyes makes me feel the same way about the UK. You can also hang out in Santa Monica and pretend.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Well, there is a lot of coast on the West U.S. I thinnk Point Reyes works well for Toibin’s purposes, because it shares more with the Irish Coast. Having said that, direct physical comparisons are not really important — it is the emotional ones that count.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    Yes, but nonetheless there is something about Point Reyes that reminds me of the UK. It’s a great spot for whale watching BTW.

  4. Lee Monks Says:

    An excellent review, Kevin, and the excerpts are well chosen. What to say other than I love Toibin, I love short stories and, just possibly, this is the best thing he has done. Which makes it, like you say, totally unmissable.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: As much as I like Toibin’s novels, I do think the short story format is where he is at his best. His writing is exquisite and the shorter length allows him to play with both language and sound (note the echoed phrases at the end of all three excerpts in the review — that’s part of why this review is more Toibin than it is KfC) to high effect.

  6. Trevor Says:

    Well, this is a must for me now. I love short story collections and your recommendation of any one of them is enough for me. I still need to get to know Toibin better, too, since I’ve read only a couple of short stories and just one of his novels. Another reason I won’t be getting to more O’Hara any time soon!

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Keep an eye out in remainder bins and second hand stores for Mothers and Sons as well. I think in these two collections Toibin becomes as much North American as Irish (I mean that as a compliment) in the way that he explores the deeper themes, even if his settings are European. It leads me to compare him to my own NA favorites and that is a long list (Munro, Updike, Cheever, Meloy and I am hardly started). For some reason, short story writers don’t sell well in the UK, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have great practitioners in the genre — and Toibin is definitely that.

    I also neglected to mention in the review that one of the stories (“Silence”) takes off from a paragraph that Toibin found in a Henry James notebook. It is not just a tribute to James, however, it is also consistent with the broader themes of the stories in the book, even if set a century earlier. Which also means that I should add James and Wharton to that list in the previous para. Sigh.

  8. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I have only read one of Toibin’s works (Brooklyn, as you know) and quite enjoyed it. This looks like an excellent place to continue with my exploration of his work. While I generally prefer novels, to short story collections, great writing is great writing. And, when it is a short story collection, I tend to like the “common theme” approach to the “common characters” approach. With common characters, just write a novel already.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I don’t want to oversell the “common theme” idea but I did find it to be a unifying element to some widely varied stories. And I do think you will find that some of the better parts of Brooklyn show up in the stories in this collection. It would be a good next step for you, I would say.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read three of his novels but never his short stories so I’m interested to hear you think that’s where he’s best. Clearly I must correct my omission.

    I am a little surprised he felt the need to explain both who Icarus was (son of Daedalus) and what happened to him. Could he not have assumed we’d know?

    Having read The South I think he’s better on Ireland than Barcelona actually, on my reading anyway.

    Interesting that not every story succeeds. Did you think Mothers and Sons the stronger collection?

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think the Icarus reference is more to explain what is going on in the character’s head than as an explanation for the reader. Part of what I liked about these stories (especially the Irish ones) is the way that Toibin succeeds at developing the conflicting thoughts that are going through his central character’s mind (past/present/future, pleasant/painful memories, etc. — I’m trivializing it). I think that confusion of responses is highly realistic, particularly when someone is returning to a place that had a lot of meaning for them after a long absence.

    He is so good on Ireland that I wonder whether that makes Barcelona impossible to measure up. I should also acknowledge that the type of “loss” that the characters experience in the Irish stories is probably more to my interest than the alienating factors in the Barcelona stories.

    It has been a while since I read Mothers and Sons so I don’t think it would be fair to make a comparison — I’ll probably do a selective re-read of both volumes in a few months. And it probably would have been more accurate if I had said “some of the stories succeed more than others do” — I don’t think there are any bad ones in the book, just that some landed more with me.

  12. Trevor Says:

    Kevin, is there any indication in the book where the pieces were first published? I know that one of the last ones, “The Colour of Shadows,” was published in The New Yorker in 2009. I’m wondering if he’s finding publication for his short stories primarily in the North American outlets. What are the good UK venues for short stories? I read Granta sometimes, but that’s the only one that comes to mind right now. Meanwhile, I can think of dozens off the top of my head in North America, and many of their regular contributers reside in the UK or Ireland.

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t think I know any good UK venues for short stories other than Granta. Perhaps some very low circulation magazines (and I doubt Granta’s circulation is massive).

    That may be why he’s finding publication primarily in the US.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Two stories (the one you mention and “One Minus One”) appeared first in the New Yorker. Two (“The Pearl Fishers” which is Irish and “Barcelona 1975″ ) in the Dublin Review. “Silence” (the Henry James inspired story) in Boulevard Magenta (a publication that I don’t know). “Two Women” (which I cited as my favorite) in the Financial Times, which I didn’t know published stories. “The Empty Family” (the longest in the book, another Barcelona story) in Vija Celmins: Dessins/Drawings. “The Street” in McSweeney’s. Which would leave “The New Spain” as the only unsourced (or unpublished) story.

    Pretty much all over the map. I don’t know UK literary periodicals that well but my impression has always been (and Max confirms it) that there are many fewer outlets there. I also get the impression that, even for established writers not to mention new ones, getting a collection published in the UK happens less often than in North America. Then again, the story collection is a popular Canadian phenomenon so maybe that has an impact on my impression. It is interesting that NA contests welcome collections while UK ones (the Booker) don’t.

    The UK is not without great short story writers (William Trevor certainly comes to mind) but they seem to have fewer than we do in North America.

    For me, a linked collection either by character (say Olive Kitteridge) or theme (this one, Winesburg, Ohio for sure) often has as much appeal as a novel.

  15. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve had this one earmarked ever since I heard about its publication, but will wait for the paperback version. I’m intrigued by novelists who explore the notion of home, so this one will be right down my street. Having just spent 2 months in Oz, the longest period since I left Australia for the UK in 1998, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not the same country that I left, so whenever I miss home it is not really “home” that I miss, but a particular time in my life (my 20s??) that I am missing.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I think your experience as an emigre — and your impressive knowledge of Irish fiction — will make this collection very interesting for you. You will probably see some elements that simply passed me by.

  17. Cheryl Collins Says:

    I agree about ‘Two Women’, it’s the one that has stuck in my mind and I don’t even like the short story form that much.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cheryl: Two Women had a very human touch to it, both on the upside and the downside. I think Toibin is at his best when he is exploring the way that individuals react to challenging circumstances, which is what that story did. I also respect the way that he can capture how our minds move so quickly from past to present to future when we contemplate those kinds of situations.

  19. Tom C Says:

    These stories were slow to develop, seeming to be calmly reflective, unfolding their narrative piece by piece. I was reminded of William Trevor and the great John McGahern – both of whom share with Toibin a distinctive Irish voice. It is interesting to read your perspective on this book which is similar to mine in most respects. Being an old-fashioned type, I didn’t really understand the need for the sexual explicitness which seemed rather out of place to me.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I am inclined to agree with you about the sexual explicitness — it simply did not add anything to those stories. On the other hand, Toibin’s exploration of his Irish roots did strike a chord in me, in every story.

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