The Empty Family

The people in these nine stories tend to be rapt, industrious solitaries, anxious to maintain personal autonomy at all costs. Carme in "The New Spain", coming home to claim her inheritance, feels "no desire to make contact with anyone, no one she had left behind in London, and no one here . . ." Frances in "Two Women" thinks that, "besides her career, nothing interested her now except her own house and her own mind". Malik in "The Street", sharing a flat with seven other expats, looks forward to "getting into bed and feeling alone there in the darkness". Even Lady Gregory, reckoning up her affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt in "Silence", feels the lack of “a close, discreet friend to whom such things could be whispered".

This loneliness is compounded by the strains of loss, exile and death - three themes in which Tóibín has always excelled. Detached from the landscapes that formed them, his characters nearly always turn out to have deeply equivocal feelings about the motherlode. Returning to base to attend family funerals or settle unfinished business, they are forced - often with maximal unwillingness - to confront the effect of absence on their sense of who they are. The narrator of "One Minus One" notes that "in these years of being away there are times when Ireland comes to me in a sudden guise, when I see a hint of something familiar that I want and need". The hero of the title story, back in Enniscorthy and wondering where the future will carry him, remembers how in California he "went out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home".

Besides loss, exile, death and deracination, The Empty Family is also, necessarily, about the past. Invariably its characters find that detachment comes at a price: a coming to terms with bygone experience that in some cases they are glad to recall, but in others would do a great deal to avoid. The protagonist of "The Pearl Fishers" is summoned to a Dublin hotel to meet a couple he knew as teenagers: the husband is an old boyfriend; his wife is about to add her seduction to the charge sheet racked up by their priestly mentor. And Carme, reconnoitring her grandmother's house on Menorca, now colonised by her parents, sister and nieces, is shocked by the abandoned protocols, that "no one had set the table properly for dinner and that no one had told the children to sit up straight and be quiet . . . Everything seemed confused."

Like the situations in which the homecomers find themselves, the accommodations reached with past time are rarely straightforward. Closure comes not through compromise, or rearrangement, but by a kind of calcification of what exists. Recalling his mother's death, the narrator of "One Minus One" acknowledges that he will "not be given a second chance", but says that "this struck me almost with relief". Heading home through Dublin's backstreets, the raisonneur of "The Pearl Fishers" decides that no matter "how long and solitary the night to come, I would not exchange any of it for the easy rituals of mutuality and closeness that Gráinne and Donnacha were performing now". Carme, having got rid of her parents and resolved to knock down the wall that her father has built between her grandmother's house and the beach, feels "a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would ever come her way".

The slight sense of claustrophobia hanging over several of the stories - the thought of pale eyes bulging away in the darkness - is redeemed by the wider landscapes and larger casts of two of the longer pieces. In "Two Women", a renowned but "difficult" dresser of film sets, brought back to Ireland after long years away, returns temporarily to the human race in an encounter with her dead boyfriend's wife. "The Street", alternatively, sketches out the relationship surreptitiously established between two Pakistanis brought to Barcelona to work in a barber's shop.

And so to loss, exile and death one can add a final theme: homosexuality. As with Edmund White's full-frontal elegisings, the twin tropes of sleaze and sensibility in which the modern gay writer seems to specialise can sometimes defy harmonisation. One moment, the reader is admiring the beach-bound "solitary eye" of the title story, who examines the waves in the knowledge that "the words for colours, the blue-grey-green of the sea, the whiteness of the waves, will not work against the fullness of watching the rich chaos they yield and carry"; the next, he is attending to a full-on discussion of the techniques of anal sex. It is to Tóibín's credit that he can make both thrusting members and exquisitely nuanced reflections on
the past look as if they were cut from the same imaginative cloth.


The Empty Family
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 224pp, £17.99

D J Taylor's most recent novel is "At the Chime of a City Clock" (Constable, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut