Colm Tóibín is a fine lyricist of yearning, exile and regret. The beautifully measured Brooklyn was a poignant history of leaving and returning home; The Master, his novel about Henry James, was heavy with memories of lost childhood and lost loves that had to be turned into art. The stories in The Empty Family like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons are threaded through with regret and need.
The characters are people who have postponed their life's chances for too long or who, on returning home, find they have come to "a landscape of endings", a place of "sad echoes and dim feelings". These belated returns are often to an Irish deathbed; the family home or graveyard is often in Tóibín's homeland of County Wexford. Under a Texan moon, the narrator of "One Minus One" talks in his head to his former lover about his Irish mother's death six years before, and about a childhood scene, long before that, when he and his brother were left in a house where there was nothing no love, no recognition, no attention a place of emptiness and of "being emptied". That's home for most of these narrators. In the title story, the loveless, orphaned speaker, living in California, keeps going out to a coastal point which he feels is "one of the ends of the earth", because it reminds him of the Irish landscape he can hardly admit he is missing. In "The Colour of Shadows", a man visits the dying woman who brought him up after his mother abandoned him, but can't bring himself to sleep in his old bedroom: "That's all over now."
Three stories set in 1970s Barcelona Tóibín's old fictional haunt show the country's complex changes, post-Franco, through minutely focused individual lives. In the book's most daring story, a boy from Pakistan working in a barber's shop and selling mobile phones, one of an exploited workforce of immigrants whose lives are contained by their lodging-house and their Muslim community, falls in love with a fellow-worker. They are discovered and brutally treated, but find a way of being together: "My real family is you," one says to the other. It's a dangerous, dramatic story, told with sombre reticence from the point of view of an inarticulate character no more able to analyse the forces that manipulate him than the clever 16-year-old boy (in "The Pearl Fishers"), at an Irish Catholic school in the 60s, being "groomed" by the priests in ways he hardly understands.
Tóibín's skill is to tell us, as an undertow to the personal stories, and not as explicit commentary, a great deal about the history and politics of 70s Spain, or about the "new" Ireland that "strange small country where prices rose as though they were Icarus . . . who ignored the warnings and whose wings were melted by the sun's bright heat". There are a few soggy moments too many elegiac sentences starting with "And" and some over-egging of phrases, as in "the poisonous innocence of the moon tonight". But mostly Tóibín banks himself down, as in Brooklyn, to impressive effect. Like his film designer, who was "careful to use detail sparingly but to make it stand for a lot", he understands dramatic economy.
One story shows off a light gift for cynical badinage, between three professional types in a smart Dublin restaurant: a film-maker, a hospital manager and a media columnist about to launch her candid autobiography of childhood abuse. Everything in Ireland that was once concealed is now, for them, fair game: "Is the Church still against fornication? Or has that gone the way of Limbo and the burning of heretics?" But this is more a desolate book than a satirical one. Tóibín's solitaries, whose minds are "filled with their own histories", are also desperate to "evade, erase, forget".
The "I" of the title-story is looking out at the sea in the "grey Irish light" and focusing on the waves, "a piece of the world indifferent to the fact that there is language". For him, as for most of these narrators, it is almost a relief not to speak out, to keep their lives secret.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010