REVIEW: Empty Family by Colm Toibin

TITLE:  The Empty Family
AUTHOR: Colm Toíbín
PUBLISHER: PanMacmillan, (November 2010)
ISBN: 9781405040235

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected]).

The moon lays low over Texas. The moon is my mother. She is full tonight, and brighter than the brightest neon: there are folds of red in her vast amber“.

So begins the first of the nine stories in this book, as a man walks the streets of Guadeloupe pouring out his memories of a return to Ireland six years earlier to be with his dying mother. He speaks, in his head, to an old lover, and memories of loss, separation and strained family relationships mingle with regret for long years of hoping for some sign of his mother’s love for him and nostalgia for a love which has cooled.

An air of melancholy and nostalgia pervades many of the stories in Colm Toíbín’s latest book. Memories and regret for familiar people and familiar places left behind, for the changes wrought by distance and time, for the awareness of  inhabiting  “a landscape of endings“.  Toíbín’s great skill is to create these tensions with small brush-strokes which build a picture not just of his narrators, but also of time and place  – California, Barcelona, Ireland  – all changed.

Carme Giralt, in ‘The New Spain’, returns after eight years exile in London to a new regime, a new democratic order in post-Franco Spain. Forced to leave because of her Communist sympathies, she returns to reclaim an inheritance left to her and her sister by her grandmother. She finds her parents and brother-in-law hostile towards her because of changes they have made to the estate without her permission; and  Spain itself is changed in ways she struggles to absorb. Old customs on St. John’s Eve eventually reconnect her with old friends and with some remnants of old Spanish life, but the situation in her family home, her home, is impossible until she reasserts her independence and finds unexpected ease in plans to claim her rightful place in this changed but familiar country.

Several of Toíbín’s narrators are women and many have an inner strength which supports them through difficult returns. In ‘The Empty Family’ the narrator could be a man or a woman. I read it as the story of a woman who returns from California to a cottage she owns on the coast in Ireland. In all the years away, she tells us, she would go to a place which reminded her of this coast “so I could miss home“. Now she is back in her “dream space” waiting for an old lover to hear of her return and visit her. No-one comes. “My eye, desperate to evade, erase, forget“, reaches after new dreams and (perhaps influenced by her reading of William Glass’s book On Being Blue) she muses on the way language and perception shape our world, and she blocks out words with the “rich chaos” of the endless waves.

In ‘Two Women’, a formidable, confident, sharp-tongued set-designer returns to Ireland to work on a film with a director she knows well. “Beside her career nothing interested her now except her own house and her own mind“, but Dublin stirs old memories, in particular of a man she had once loved and still regrets losing. When, by chance, she meets the widow of this man, she has to confront her mixed feelings. In the end, she decides, “the years passed: it was as simple as that“: and life goes on.

The narrators of several of the stories in this book are gay. Sometimes this is merely suggested and it plays no significant part in the story. But in other stories, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ and ‘Barcelona 1975’ in particular, graphic descriptions of homosexual sex are confronting and, for some, will be unacceptable. Those who have followed and enjoyed Toíbín’s writing over the years may not be prepared for such sudden, open and explicit writing about sex, and I do wonder if it is really necessary to the stories, especially when they are, in themselves, as subtle and complex as others in the book.

In the final and longest story, Malik, a young boy from Pakistan is an immigrant working in Barcelona and living in a small Muslim enclave. He does not know the city, does not speak the language, has no friends, and his employer wields considerable power over him. It is a lonely, insecure and alien life. He learns about people, about power, about violence, about himself and, eventually, about a fellow employee, Abdul, with whom he forms a tenuous friendship and a secret, unspoken and necessarily hidden homosexual bond. The nature of this bond is only made clear when he discovers by accident that Abdul has a wife and children in Pakistan and he realizes how little he knows about the man. But Abdul mends the relationship, telling him “you are my real family”.

This is one of the best stories in the book for the way in which it quietly conveys Malik’s youth, his naivety and his confusion. He does not know the work or the culture and hardly knows himself, but Toíbín skillfully conveys his gradual, half-understanding of his relationship with his employer, of his fellow workers at the barber’s shop where he has failed to learn to cut hair, of his severely restricted life in a strange city, and of love.

In all the stories in this book, Toíbín’s spare, poetic language has subtle and  powerful effect and his empathy with his characters is persuasive and convincing. As in his recent book, Brooklyn, he draws the reader into his narrator’s inner world and the story is told through their perceptions and their feelings about what happens in their lives. The Empty Family offers some fine, varied, poignant, and not unhappy, stories about memory, loss, love and regret.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2010
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: