The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín | Book review

These wonderfully restrained stories are populated by lost and lonely characters coming to terms with regret

Colm Tóibín's most recent novel, Brooklyn, told the story of a young woman who leaves a small town in Ireland in the 1950s for the uncertainties of a new life in America. When a death in the family summons her back to Enniscorthy, she has to make an apparently impossible choice between two places, both – and therefore neither – of which she thinks of as home. The nine stories in Tóibín's new collection, The Empty Family, explore similar themes: of exile and return, death and loss, irreconcilable love affairs and conflicting loyalties, the differences between the families we're born into and those we choose for ourselves, or would if we could.

Except that "themes" isn't quite the word, implying as it may a kind of programmatic crudeness that's entirely lacking from these deft and subtle stories. Better perhaps to say that Tóibín's protagonists, different people from different places and in different times, find themselves in unexpectedly similar situations, coming home only to find that home is not where they thought it was.

In the title story, an Irishman who has been living in San Francisco, driving "out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home", returns to County Wexford, where "home was not merely this house I am in now or this landscape of endings… home was some graves where my dead lay outside the town of Enniscorthy, just off the Dublin Road".

He knows he will have to decide soon whether to stay or return to the States, but in the meantime: "I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea… I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the Sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all that has passed." The story is addressed to a former lover.

In "Two Women", an Irish production designer in her late 70s with a fearsome reputation for "hard impatience" comes to Ireland to work on a movie, and in a pub in Wicklow meets by chance the widow of her ex-lover. Before leaving America, "she had found herself longing for Ireland". As soon as she arrives in Dublin, however, she resolves "that she would never come here again… she felt that she was travelling through alien territory, low, miserable and grim".

In "The New Spain", a young woman returns to the country after the death of Franco. She has been in exile in London for eight years. The house on Menorca that she and her sister have inherited from their grandmother has changed almost beyond recognition. Her relations with her parents are as bad as they ever were, but her mother's rebuke that she only phoned her grandmother once a year hits home and now it's too late. "The regret came to her sharply now as she walked into the city centre, the place her grandmother had loved most in the world."

All the stories here are suffused with loneliness, longing and regret, but there's an extraordinary restrained steeliness to the storytelling that prevents the characters' sadness from ever slumping into sentiment or self-pity. Tóibín's use of language appears simple – not the same thing as easy; rather the opposite – but it's astonishingly precise, depicting complex and conflicted states of mind with rare clarity, such as the protagonist of "The Empty Family" looking far out to sea through a telescope and "focusing swiftly" on a single wave, seeing the line that makes sense of the apparent chaos. "It was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well."

Not much outwardly happens in most of these stories, partly because the important action has already happened in the past, but also because Tóibín knows how to make the most out of very little. When two Pakistani men in Barcelona, clandestine lovers, arrange to meet near the docks one afternoon, you almost think they're about to run away together, until you realise that this stolen hour on the waterfront is escape enough. "I did not swim that day," the narrator of "The Empty Family" says, after describing an encounter with his ex-lover's brother and sister-in-law on the beach. "Enough had happened. That meeting was enough." Like the production designer in "Two Women", Tóibín is "careful to use detail sparingly but make it stand for a lot".

It would be a mistake to read too much sadness into these stories. "No matter how grim the city I walked through was," one narrator says, "how cavernous my attic rooms, 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. I checked my pocket to make sure I had my keys with me and almost smiled to myself at the bare thought that I had not forgotten them." He may seem a pitiable figure, but to pity him would be to align yourself with Donnacha and Gráinne, the narrator's ex-lover and his wife, overconfident in their sense of entitlement and belonging, and the story has been too well told for that to be possible. Tóibín's characters choose clarity over comfort and this is something that neither they nor his readers can or should regret.


Thomas Jones

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín – review

The Bible tells us little about the interior life of Jesus Christ's mother. In this brave and thoughtful novella, Colm Tóibín fills in the gaps, writes Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman

20, Oct, 2012 @11:09 PM

Article image
The Magician by Colm Tóibín review – a difficult Mann to know
This dramatisation of Thomas Mann’s private and public life never quite convinces as biography or fiction

Anthony Cummins

26, Sep, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
House of Names by Colm Tóibín – brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy
The writer takes us behind the scenes of The Oresteia in ‘a celebration of what novels can do’

Alex Preston

22, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Colm Tóibín: ‘A book wouldn’t improve Trump’
The author of Brooklyn and The Master discusses fathers and families, the new wave of female Irish novelists – and the only time he wishes he owned a TV

Lisa O’Kelly

20, Jul, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Colm Tóibín reads Music at Annahullian by Eugene McCabe
Colm Tóibín delights in the hidden landscapes and hidden lives revealed in Eugene McCabe’s Music at Annahullian

Colm Tóibín, Lisa Allardice, Francesca Panetta and Iain Chambers

14, Dec, 2010 @6:00 AM

Article image
Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell – review
A US-heavy anthology about motherhood has personal resonance for Alice Fisher

Alice Fisher

18, Mar, 2012 @12:07 AM

Article image
Best books of 2017 – part two
From moving memoirs to far-reaching fiction, novelists, poets and critics pick their best reads of the year

26, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families by Colm Tóibín – review
In mapping out literature's family tree, Colm Tóibín can't help but bend a branch or two to his will, says Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones

26, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín review – words never fail him
The clarity of the novelist’s descriptive ability shines through essays on topics ranging from his treatment for cancer to the joys of an empty Venice

Rachel Cooke

29, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Nora Webster review – Colm Tóibín’s ‘powerful study of widowhood’
Personal grief plays out against a backdrop of political turmoil in Colm Tóibín’s love letter to an Ireland in flux, writes Robert McCrum

Robert McCrum

05, Oct, 2014 @8:00 AM