The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín has long been one of my favorite authors. I was bowled over by the first of his novels that I read and have continued to enjoy his fiction. Then at a reading at Goucher College I picked up his collection of essays, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, which I found both amusing and intriguing. However, short stories require a different sort of approach. I wondered how his breadth of vision and depth of emotion would fare here. I feared it would be like plunking down an ocean liner in a small pond.

I’m relieved to say that he is a master of short fiction as well. This collection of short stories only confirms my appreciation of his work. The protagonists may be male or female, Irish or Spanish or Pakistani, but each is fully imagined.

The first story drew me into depths so profound it was some time before I could go on. “Silences” recounts Lady Gregory’s experiences leading up to a dinner conversation with Henry James in which she tells him a story. I don’t want to give away too much, but it seemed to me that Tóibín captures what it is to be a storyteller, the alchemy we perform and the strange satisfaction we take in the telling.

Yet he titles it “Silences”. I think about what is not said, what core of emotional truth becomes the secret spring for a story.

There are silences at the heart of many of the stories in this collection. Some trauma has occurred in the past that has thrown the protagonist’s life off course, but often we aren’t told what it is. We don’t need to know. What we are seeing are the effects, now, many years later. Alex Sokoloff and others talk about the protagonist having a secret wound, some event from the past that haunts them. Because of course we all do, no matter how uneventful our lives. It may be something small or large, superficial or deep, but it is there.

The stories in this collection made me understand that it is not only the family that can disappoint, empty of the loving support or the tribal identity, but our lives and relationships as well. The emptiness of endeavor: we set out to do great things in the world, yet we shy away or postpone, thinking we have all kinds of time. Still, the past holds us close; we get dragged back into situations we think we’ve left behind.

One of Tóibín’s great skills is his ability to convey banked emotion. Each of these deeply felt stories contains huge emotional power. It threatens to spill over but never does. How does he do it? Partly by making the stakes high. In “One Minus One”, the narrator is called back to Ireland by the impending death of his mother, pulling him away from his new life teaching in New York City. As if a mother’s death is not enough, he remembers another earlier and deeper wound. Then at the end, when he speaks quite simply, you know the roiling and complex storm held in check behind his simple words.

Even in more mundane situations Tóibín can make the stakes seem high. In “The New Spain”, Carme returns to Spain after eight years in England. As she travels to the house her recently deceased grandmother has left her, she remembers summers she and her sister spent there as children. With only a few details, Tóibín summons the smell and taste of those days and nights in the beloved house under her grandmother’s benevolent rule.

Another way he conveys the emotion behind a seemingly ordinary event, such as looking at the sea through a telescope, is through the rare burst of poetry. It may be just a phrase, but it creates the leap Robert Bly speaks of as essential to poetry, the moment when you the reader are invited to take part in the story. The ground falls out from under you and you see that there is more here than you thought.

The silences between the characters also invite us in. In “The Street” Malik, newly arrived in Madrid from Pakistan, is afraid to leave the street where he works with the other eight men who share his single room. He’s been told not to wander, but anyway he doesn’t speak the language. Even with the other Pakistanis, though, there are silences and it is only gradually through the story that dialogue begins to appear, tentatively at first, and then growing stronger.

In my fascination with Tóibín’s talent, I probably haven’t conveyed how strong and satisfying these stories are. By the end I felt as though I’d lived an additional nine lives.

Have you read any of Colm Tóibín’s work?

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