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 was pleased to receive The Infinities through the post, having been impressed with John Banville’s recent novels, particularly his last book, The Sea, which won the 2005 Man Booker prize. Banville has become well-known for the sheer quality of his writing, which is perhaps not surprising in view of his statement that he only writes about 100 words a day (see his Wikipedia entry).
The Infinities is a delight to read, a book which for once I found wholly satisfying. It is the story of one day in the life of a family, but told from the perspective of Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia the cave-woman. The narrative takes place both here on earth and also among a group of carping, capricious Gods, mischievously intervening in the affairs of men.
Both worlds collide throughout the novel, and Hermes both interprets what is going on in the family below, but also deals with the dramas above, particularly those caused by his reprobate old father who is obsessed with the young women he sees on earth. For the Gods “cannot resist revealing ourselves to you once in a while, out of our incurable boredom, or love of mischief, or that lingering nostalgia we harbour for this rough world of our making”.
The story opens with the patriarchal Adam Godley having suffered a stroke and being confined, comatose, to a darkened room where his wife cares to his needs. The family have gathered to observe the final days of their parent, the ponderous Young Adam and his lovely wife Helen, the daughter Petra, a couple of retainers (cook and gardener), and two guests who turn up to stay with the family for reasons largely unknown.