The Empty Family

If you want to be sad – to surrender to the profundity and variety and physical force of that sensation – Colm Tóibín is your man

Reviewed by Cindy Widner, Fri., Jan. 21, 2011

New in Print

The Empty Family

by Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 288 pp., $24

If you want to be sad – to surrender to the profundity and variety and physical force of that sensation – Colm Tóibín is your man. Loneliness, loss, longing – these are not new themes for Tóibín, whose much-lauded and bestselling novel Brooklyn concerns the dislocation and fractured identity of a young Irish girl who immigrates to the United States in the 1950s. Nor is the author coy about the centrality of those concepts to The Empty Family, his new short-story collection. The title story, for example, contains a fine metaphor for the kinds of cleaving that mark the human condition. Observing a wave off the coast of Ireland, the protagonist notes that it, like us, struggles to move away from the other waves, from the larger ocean, only "to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out and rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy."

It is not the ideas of separateness and of sorrow, though, that cause Tóibín's stories to affect us so but rather the ways in which we are surprised by our affinity for the telling. Tóibín is a master of the specific portrait, the mechanics of particular loss that make us want to look at, and to feel, his stories of people we might not otherwise see. Like the young Irish girl at the center of Brooklyn, the characters in The Empty Family must grapple with a place they left behind and to which they must return, often reluctantly: A septuagenarian set designer travels from Los Angeles to her native, despised Ireland for work; a once-Communist Spanish heiress returns from exile to claim her inheritance after Franco's death; an engineer goes back to Enniscorthy (Tóibín's hometown) to move the aunt who raised him into a nursing home.

What Tóibín accomplishes with these mostly ordinary scenarios is extraordinary. Simple narratives and linear prose, neither showy nor overly taut, build suspense where there is no overt mystery. Vivid images emerge despite a dearth of descriptiveness. We are drawn across oceans and back again. Characters are not usually remarkable, nor are they always sympathetic, but nevertheless we find ourselves liking, maybe even loving, them. Because they are human, we want to stay with them. 

Colm Tóibín reads at BookPeople on Jan. 26 at 7pm.

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