‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

It should come as no surprise that Colm Tóibín admires Henry James; Tóibín, after all, wrote a novelization of James’ life, The Master. Most of the stories in Tóibín’s newest collection, The Empty Family (Scribner), share a stylistic heritage with James: a careful, almost classical style that eschews linguistic pyrotechnics in favor of a moment-by-moment accounting of detail and emotion. The Empty Family even opens with “Silence,” which features James as a character. The major difference, however, between James and Tóibín: Henry James never wrote about having anal sex with gobs of Vaseline.

But lest one think that The Empty Family is particularly prurient, Tóibín establishes himself early on as a writer pre-occupied foremost with memory. Many of the stories deal with return: characters return to places they had left behind, and they return, in their thoughts, to loves long past that still leave a distant warmth on the skin, and it’s with this theme that Tóibín is at his best.

In “The Colour of Shadows,” for example, a gay man returns to the town where he was raised by his aunt, now elderly and in need of care. As he deals with the vagaries of her health, he must confront the fact that the mother who abandoned him has, herself, returned to the town. In “Two Women,” an encounter with a guard at an art museum brings a woman back to memories of her first love, and when she returns to Ireland for business, she encounters the widow of the man she once loved.

Toibin also uses a Jamesian point-of-view to emphasize his themes. Both the title story and “One Minus One” utilize a first-person address, in which the narrator directly addresses the reader. With this uncommon point-of-view, Tóibín suggests a long-lost intimacy between the speaker and the reader, even as the reader tries to uncover the parameters of the relationship.

Of the two, “One Minus One” is perhaps more successful, as it makes it clear that this is a male addressing another male. But the more abstract nature of “The Empty Family” allows Tóibín the opportunity to evoke a landscape in gorgeous prose, like his observation of a sea stone “washed by the waves, its colour dissolved by water, yet all the more alive for that, as though the battle between colour and salt water had offered it a mute strength.”

The landscapes Tóibín evokes most often are of Ireland and Spain, countries that have both seen their share of political and social upheavals. But these serve more as backdrops to the human interactions to which Tóibín is attuned. On its surface, for instance, “The Pearl Fishers” addresses the hot-button topic of sex between Catholic clergy and minors, but its primary focus remains on the contentious relationship between a writer, his old school friend Gráinne, and Donnacha, Gráinne’s husband and the writer’s former lover.

The stories set in Spain are more bawdy, though no less complex. In “Barcelona, 1975,” the narrator, befriended by the artist José Pérez Ocaña, uncovers a world of sexual pleasure despite the political turmoil around him. And in “The New Spain,” a young woman who flees the Franco dictatorship returns years after his death to confront not only the changes in her homeland but also within her family.

But it’s the final story set in Spain, “The Street,” that cements Tóibín’s reputation. Set in a Barcelonan community of undocumented Pakistani workers, “The Street” follows Malik, a newly-arrived immigrant, as he contends with his cramped living situation and less-than-ideal working conditions. Slowly, he becomes aware of his attraction to Abdul, a fellow immigrant, and despite a mutual reticence, lack of privacy and the very real threat of violence, they develop a tenuous relationship.

With “The Street,” Tóibín takes an imaginative leap that rings true, bringing to life both the closed-mindedness and open-heartedness of this Pakistani community. At once touching, harrowing, and vivid, “The Street” shows a mastery of the short story that James himself would applaud.

The Empty Family
by Colm Tóibín
Hardcover, 9781439138328, 275 pp.
January 2011