In 'The Empty Family,' Colm Tóibín's penetrating eye sees all: straight, gay, past, present
Irish writer Colm Tóibín's latest collection, "The Empty Family," proves him a master of the short story. Tóibín will read Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Colm TóibínThe author of "The Empty Family" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'The Empty Family'
by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 275 pp., $24
In his 2007 collection, "Mothers and Sons," Irish writer Colm Tóibín ("The Master," "The Blackwater Lightship") showed himself to be an emerging master of the short-story form. In his new gathering of tales, "The Empty Family," that mastery is complete.
There's not a phrase or observation amiss in these nine stories. In all of them Tóibín's focus is laser-incisive, illuminating complexities and contradictions of behavior in prose that couldn't be more shrewd or clear.
"Silence," the book's opener, takes its inspiration from an entry in Henry James' notebooks about an anecdote James heard from Lady Gregory, the Irish dramatist and folklorist. Her tale of a clergyman who never consummated his marriage becomes, in Tóibín's skillful hands, a veiled confession on the part of Lady Gregory herself, whose viewpoint is followed throughout the story.
Married to a prestigious politician 35 years her senior, she believes she's made a reasonable bargain with life: "This was marriage, she thought, and it was her job to be calm about it. There were times when the grim, dull truth of it made her smile."
That "smile" is a typical Tóibínian twist: The word brings her character to life, yet also hints that she may be more susceptible to sexual connection than she believes.
The resulting story is about a secret simultaneously kept and obliquely revealed.
In other tales — "Two Women," "One Minus One," the collection's title story — Irish exiles, returning to their native land for reasons that are often beyond their control, are caught in the push-pull effect Ireland has on them. The acerbic, Los Angeles-based film-set decorator in "Two Women," for example, finds herself "glad she had been brought up in this country for long enough to appreciate being so far away from it." Tóibín's handling of similar ambiguities in all three tales couldn't be more nimble.
"Barcelona, 1975" and "The Pearl Fishers" are the most frankly gay stories. The first is a memory piece about a young Irishman drifting into attachments that both spring him loose from his inhibitions, yet have little hold on him. "The Pearl Fishers" is a more barbed, complex story about three former schoolmates: the cynical narrator, his one-time boyfriend and the woman whom the boyfriend eventually married.
As the narrator explains: "Most of us are gay or straight; Donnacha simply made no effort, he took whatever came his way."
His bulldozer of a wife, however, is unaware of her husband's former "beautiful nonchalance." Now a newspaper columnist holding forth on "the state of the Church and the soul of the nation," she's about to publish a tell-all story of her own life that includes the trio's shared past. The story is both a reverie on that past, in which the narrator revisits the moment he realized he and Donnacha were going their separate ways, and a suspenseful tease in which either man may, intentionally or inadvertently, spill the beans.
"The New Spain" and "The Street" take Tóibín out of his Irish orbit altogether. The first is about a young Communist exile returning to post-Franco Spain to claim an inheritance. Some very nasty family and political quarrels ensue. The second concerns two male Pakistani workers in Barcelona living in dormitory housing and driven, in part by loneliness, in part by natural desire, into an obstacle-strewn affair.
While Tóibín knows Spain well, he seems at the outer limits of what he can do here. Still, both stories are impeccably crafted.
Here's a book that's both a perfect introduction to Tóibín and, for longtime fans, a bracing pleasure.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
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