Review: The Empty Family – Colm Tóibín

I am writing this review early in the morning in the strange half-light reflecting into the house from the eight inches of snow which fell overnight down here on the South Coast of England.

I often find short-story collections disappointing, mainly because so many writers try to create impact by giving their work an unwarranted novelty or quirkiness.  In Ireland at least however, there is a long tradition of short story writing which tends towards the calm and reflective, providing illuminating windows on to life with far greater integrity than those writers who wish to surprise their readers with their cleverness.  Ann Enright’s new collection for Granta Books, The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, is full of such, including writers like John McGahern, William Trevor and the author of the subject of this review of The Empty Family, Colm Toíbín.

The stories in The Empty Family are definitely in the Irish tradition of short stories.  Each one can be seen as an episode in someone’s life, and often they seem like extracts from a longer work, although this is not to say that they do are not complete in themselves. Toíbín manages to drop the reader into the narrative of each story with little difficulty and every story certainly seems complete in itself.

The book contains nine stories, so with only 214 pages to the book, none of them is over-long. Its hard to fault any of them and looking at Amazon reviews by other readers I find it hard to understand those who have rated the book as low as two or three stars – having read a few of those reviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that generally its the genre of Irish short stories they don’t like, or even the “gayness” of some of them which has put them off (see my last paragraph).

I won’t describe each story but will home in on my favourite story, The New Spain, as an example of what I liked about the book.

Carme Giralt’s grandmother has recently died and has left her house in Menorca to Carme and her sister Nuria.  Carme is estranged from her family and has not seen them for years.  She campaigned against General Franco and her name was in police files at least until democracy came to Spain.  Now she arrives on the island to visit the house she has now inherited, in which she spend many childhood holidays and which her parents and sister are currently occupying.

All is changed.  New building has surrounded the old house and even the roadd have been re-arranged.  The access to the beach has been lost and small bungalows clutter the landscape. Her parents and sister are far from pleased to see her and it soon becomes obvious that they have been exploiting Carme’s grandmother and her wealth. Gradually Carme discovers that her father was responsible for selling off land for development and is now in debt due to having over-reached himself with building developments.  Even her grandmother’s furniture has been sold off, including her piano.

Tóibín perfectly captures the parents’ hostility to their daughter, now that she has control over what they thought they had acquired for themselves.  The whole family are aware of how the situation has changed and yet Carme’s parents have no way of avoiding the reckoning that is to come through their destruction of an older way of life and their betrayal of a sheaf of happy memories to which their daughter clings.  The conclusion is as subtle and under-stated as that found in the other stories in the book, leaving readers to continue the story as they think fit.

Tóibín is an authority on Henry James and his book, based on episodes in James’ life, The Master, is highly regarded.  It was good to see a James related story in The Empty Family. “Silence”, which begins with an episode taken from The Notebooks of Henry James –

An eminent London clergyman won on the Dover to Calais steamer, starting on his wedding tour, picked up on the deck, a letter addressed to his wife, while she was below, and finding it to be from an old lover, and very ardent, of which he never had been told, took the line of sending her, from Paris, straight back to her parents – without having touched her – on the ground that he had been deceived.  He subsequently took her back into his house to live, but never lived with her as his wife.

Tóibín constructs an elegant and stylish story about a Lady Gregory, the person who told the story to Henry James – nice little vignette with a few twists and turns of its own and surely a classic short-story to stand among any.

Colm Tóibín

This is never going to be a dramatic read, but rather a slow unfolding, a realisation of things unspoken.  By the time I finished the book I was conscious that I had not been confronted full-on by any of these snapshots on other people’s lives, but had been drawn in almost as looking through a lighted window, and then, as the story finished, I had turned away as the action continued on pages unseen.

I found this an engaging read – I started it on a Friday evening and had finished it by Sunday.  One problem for readers of short stories is that it can be a bit of an effort to get into each story.  You just manage to get your bearings on one set of characters and locations when the story finishes and you have to start all over again with the next.  In The Empty Family, I found myself drawn on from one to another with no sense of effort, but rather a sense of expectancy as I turned from one story to the next – there was a sort of continuity there which definitely made this collection easier to read than many others.

It has to be said that several of the stories contain very explicit scenes of gay sex.  I don’t know why Toíbín does this – they don’t really add anything to the story in my view, and as a reviewer I think I will point out that these could be way beyond anything readers have read before.  Tóibín described the use of Vaseline™ in gay love-making in an earlier novel and I don’t know why he needed to repeat this in The Empty Family.  Once is enough in any writer’s career in my view.  It probably sounds churlish to remark on this, but the explicitness is a significant feature of the book and I don’t really see the point of it.


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9 comments to Review: The Empty Family – Colm Tóibín

  • I’ve avoided Toibin because of his connection to Henry James, a writer I have mostly not enjoyed, but maybe a short story collection would be a way of giving Toibin another chance.

  • I really want to read Toibin at some point, but have never been entirely certain where to begin. I generally don’t have much luck with short stories, but perhaps I would better fit with “Irish” style stories. Too often I feel like short stories end just when they’re getting good and actually fail to tell a complete tale. Doesn’t sound like that’s a problem here, which is certainly good.

  • I agree that the Irish seem to have a way with short stories that many others do not — and I think the genre suits Toibin very well. Not every story is successful, but most are.

  • Tom

    Kevin – thanks for visiting. As you see, I thought this was pretty good, and good example of its genre.

  • Tom

    Hi Steph – thanks for visting. These stories may not be quite the thing if you’re looking for a complete tale! They tend to leave you up in the air a bit, and more a capture of a “moment in time”.

  • Tom

    Tony – thanks for visiting. I feel the same about Henry James – I’ve given up any hope of enjoying a book by him.

  • Nice review. I am not much of a short story reader for precisely the reasons that you have mentioned. Though I just finished reading a short story collection of Bernhard Schlink myself (review on the blog). I have read Toibin’s much acclaimed Brooklyn and loved his writing.

  • Tom

    Hi Birdy – thanks for visiting. I’ve not read Brooklyn but its highly regarded isn’t it. The Schlink collection looks interesting.

  • I haven’t read as many short story collections as I would like, partly because of what you observed. Thought about this one when I saw it advertised and will definitely get it from the library now after reading your review.

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