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.