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.

Contributor

Thomas Jones

The GuardianTramp

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