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The Empty Family

by Colm Toibin

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The Empty Family: Stories by Colm Toibin
© Scribner
Scribner, January 2011

In Colm Toibin's The Empty Family, emptiness is more of a distance, a space between. In nearly all of the short stories included in this collection, characters face a chasm, either emotional or geographical, and struggle with adjusting their lives around it. Some fight to reconnect with a distant homeland, some with distant friends and family, while others try to embrace the rift and grow stronger despite its presence.

These are stories to get lost in, even if only for just a few moments. They are as easy to return from as they are to fall into, as Toibin writes with a masterful subtlety that invites and captivates with an equal, quiet effectiveness.

In "The Pearl Fishers," a reclusive Dublin screenwriter reflects on his childhood during a dinner with two old acquaintances from grade school, now married. Grainne Roche, "a fierce believer in the truth," is writing an autobiography and hopes to corroborate some anecdotes from her past with the narrator. It is revealed that one of their grade school teachers at St. Aidan's, Father Moorehouse, had multiple sexual encounters with some of his female students, including Grainne Roche. The sexual nature to this reveal will be no surprise to most readers, but the heterosexuality of the act feels like a surprising role reversal. Up until the news of Father Moorehouse is announced at dinner, the narrator's silent childhood remembrances had focused solely on the bittersweet teenage romance he had with Donnacha, the man who grew up to be Grainne Roche's husband, the man quietly sitting across the dinner table.
Toibin is not concerned with plugging his stories full of depth and metaphor. The pieces in The Empty Family are rarely about much more than their characters and plot and instead of striving for something grandiose, Toibin focuses his craft on conveying simple, beautiful moments with seemingly effortless skill. This is not to say that Toibin writes entirely with stoic brevity; some of his best passages are when he lets his descriptions meander and illuminate the nuances of his scenes. In "The New Spain," a woman returns home after a decade to find her family's estate in the Balearic Islands drastically shifted from the perfect bliss of her childhood summers. In an attempt to reconnect with what little roots remained for her in Menorca, Carme drives into Ciutadella to take in the night's festivities:

"There were lines of cars parked on both sides of the narrow road on the way into the city and there was a sound in the distance of firecrackers going off and people shouting. It was pitch-dark as she walked along, but she knew that the dawn was only three or four hours away. It was St. John's Eve. She would already have missed the early part when sacks of hazelnuts were left in the square for people to take and throw at anyone at all, a friend, a lover, a stranger, an enemy. She was amused at the idea that she could have thrown one each at her father, her mother and her sister, and they, in turn, she supposed, could have thrown one with greater force back at her."
Toibin's prose is at its finest when it wanders, yet the successes of stories like "The New Spain" will make some of the other, shorter pieces in The Empty Family feel somewhat stunted and constricted.

"The Street" is the last and longest work in The Empty Family and is one of the better stories in the collection. Although it follows a Pakistani worker as he toils at menial jobs in Barcelona, the subject matter is not especially different from the previous stories in the book. Once again we're dealing with patriotism and homosexual identity, yet, over the story's seventy pages, "The Street" breathes and evolves in a way that none of the other stories in The Empty Family did. What remains is a devastatingly beautiful love story, intricately built with Toibin's subtlety and grace.

At times it is difficult to differentiate between slow-burning understatement and a lack of ambition in The Empty Family. The plots of most stories unfold just as expected; although this will disappoint some, Toibin's stories should instead remind readers of the importance of language and a character's inner development in literature. A focus in this direction will reveal The Empty Family to be an exceptional collection of stories that are far more emotionally complex (and far more rewarding) that they initially seem.
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