The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

25/09/10, The Times

Unlike a lot of writers, Colm Tóibín has published collections of short stories after consummate mastery of the novel form: Mothers and Sons was published after The Master and his latest, The Empty Family, follows his resoundingly successful Brooklyn, so inexplicably left off the Man Booker shortlist last year. Tóibín is currently at the very peak of his writing powers and looking back on his oeuvre so far, certain recurring themes and ideas seem to emerge – mothers and sons; exile and return; loss and reconciliation; family and its fractures; the novitiate in an alien city. These themes, now beginning to cohere as a form of artistic integrity, underscore The Empty Family too but here his great matter is, once again, the theme of return: four out of the nine stories that comprise the book are overtly about it, while two others, in their memorial reconstruction of the foreign country that is the past, more metaphorically so.

Take the title story, which begins, ‘I have come back here’, words that are repeated, with variations, throughout the piece almost as a kind of incantation. It is an intensely nostalgic piece yet utterly unsentimental. An unnamed narrator returns, after a stint in California, to the place he calls home, outside the town of Enniscorthy in Wexford in the south-east corner of Ireland (Tóibín keeps revisiting this area of Ireland with dogged faithfulness). Written to appear to be a monologue addressed to an absent ‘you’, a lover or friend from the past that he left behind, the narrator visits the brother of the addressee and looks out into Rosslare Bay through a telescope. ‘It came to me then that the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle’, he writes. Then, focusing on a single wave, ‘all movement, all spillage, but … pure containment as well’, he arrives at a bleak and elemental truth about the human condition, for the wave ‘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 rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.’ Less a story than a deeply introspective mood-piece, a love letter to a particular region of Ireland, and an articulation of a world-view or philosophy that underpins Tóibín’s fiction, all rolled into one, ‘The Empty Family’ hands us a vital key to open up his work.

In ‘One Minus One’, the narrator returns to Ireland from New York to see his terminally ill mother, with whom he has had a slightly buttoned-up relationship. Once again addressed to a former lover, who holds some kind of redemption, always already out of reach, for him, the story rakes over the past to salvage a harsh, intractable truth about regrets and irreversibility. A similar knowledge about roads not taken ends the sexually explicit ‘Barcelona, 1975’, quite a shift from what has gone before but perfectly judged and modulated. And the mother-son theme is given a quarter-twist in fictional space in ‘The Colour of Shadows’, where Paul lovingly and dutifully tends to his old, dying aunt, the woman who was, to all intents and purposes, his mother; the biological mother having abandoned or forced to abandon her son – it is never made clear what actually happened – thereby alienating irremediably her sister-in-law, who then came to look after Paul. Story after story, Tóibín returns to the family and the past and asks what subsists and survives of the social units and individual, non-transferable relationships that we are born into and which make us. Which are the bonds that abide?

The longest story in the book, ‘The Street’, is about a tender relationship that blossoms between two Pakistani men who live and work as possibly illegal immigrants in Barcelona, keeping to their own community, unassimilated with Spanish society at large, living in cramped, crowded accommodation. In a shocking development – Tóibín is too canny a writer to go down the hackneyed route of terrorism – the two marginalities marking these men’s lives, sexual and racial, are fused to create a beautiful and moving story that comes to rest on the notion of family but one that follows a completely different model from the nuclear structure that obtains in the West. What is amazing is not so much that so late in the game a love story can be written convincingly and sympathetically but that it can be made into a repository of such heart-wrenching delicacy and emotional depth.

It wouldn’t do to describe this volume as a masterclass in the short story because that would imply a certain stasis of arrival; these pieces are quicker (in both meanings of the word), defter, more profound. Yes, they do the conventional things – singular and unbroken point of view; more things left out than put in; revelatory ending – brilliantly but they are also more open-ended, more Chekhovian, more treacherous, if you will. For example, instead of the ‘twist in the tail’ there is an elusive moment of truth, Jamesian, impossible to pin down, that can only be called wisdom. The book is written with grave lucidity, a clarity that brings to mind clean, cold northern light.