The Empty Family

The Empty Family

2.9 22
by Colm Toibin

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Colm Tóibín’s exquisitely written new stories, set in present-day Ireland, 1970s Spain and nineteenthcentury England, are about people linked by love, loneliness and desire. Tóibín is a master at portraying mute emotion, intense intimacies that remain unacknowledged or unspoken. In this stunning collection, he cements his status as


Colm Tóibín’s exquisitely written new stories, set in present-day Ireland, 1970s Spain and nineteenthcentury England, are about people linked by love, loneliness and desire. Tóibín is a master at portraying mute emotion, intense intimacies that remain unacknowledged or unspoken. In this stunning collection, he cements his status as “his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power” (Los Angeles Times).

“Silence” is a brilliant historical set piece about Lady Gregory, widowed and abandoned by her lover, who tells the writer Henry James a confessional story at a dinner party. In “Two Women,” an eminent Irish set designer, aloof and prickly, takes a job in her homeland, and is forced to confront devastating emotions she has long repressed. “The New Spain” is the story of an intransigent woman who returns home after a decade in exile and shatters the fragile peace her family has forged in the post-Franco world. And in the breathtaking long story “The Street,” Tóibín imagines a startling relationship between two Pakistani workers in Barcelona—a taboo affair in a community ruled by obedience and silence.

Tóibín’s characters are often difficult and combative, compelled to disguise their vulnerability and longings. Yet he unmasks them, and in doing so offers us a set of extraordinarily moving stories that remind us of the fragility and individuality of human life. As The New York Review of Books has said, Tóibín “understands the tenuousness of love and comfort—and, after everything, its necessity.”

Editorial Reviews

Francine Prose
Toibin…doesn't shy away from the hard stuff: the deaths of parents, the end of love, the point in life at which a person begins to suspect that everything interesting and exciting has already happened. Retrospect is a major player in these dramas; regret makes its entrance onstage, and a character relives the sort of experience recalled for the obvious reason that it was so painful…The most affecting stories in The Empty Family are the longest and most complex, stories in which Toibin allows the accretion of incident and detail to engage us most fully in the fates of his characters.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Tóibín returns to his native shores from Brooklyn for the bulk of these nine pristine stories, all--save one--contemporary tales of lives haunted by loss, whether it's the legacy of a sexually abusive priest in an already complicated love triangle in "The Pearl Fishers," the long-absent gay son who returns to Dublin from New York to attend to his mother's last moments in "One Minus One," or the aching void that greets an academic's return to a family home on the Irish coast in the wistful title story. Affairs, airports, and deathbeds populate a mature prose that's as tender with descriptions of sexual, often gay, love as it is with the heart's more inexpressible reaches, never more so than in the complex "The Street," where two Pakistanis find love in the repressive backdrop of blue-collar Barcelona only to be met with violence and a curious captivity. These stories go a long way toward establishing Tóibín as heir to William Trevor, with reverberations that show how life encompasses more than the living. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
“[The Empty Family] reconfirms his mastery of the short story…. Toíbín raised his profile with the exquisitely bittersweet Brooklyn, and this collection is every bit as rich… Likely to rank with the best story collections of the year.”—Kirkus (starred review)

“The work of a supreme writer who only improves.”—The Times (U.K.)

“This is some of Toíbín’s most beautiful and heart-stopping writing. The story ‘The Street’ is one of the great love stories of our time, gay or straight.”—Edmund White, author of City Boy

“A collection that will only further fuel Toibin's ascent through English fiction.”—The Independent (UK)

Library Journal
This work conveys a remarkable cohesion for a collection of previously published stories. Each tale focuses on people who reckon transformative events from their pasts, or rather, are transformed by remembering. Tóibín's characteristically lyrical prose seems even more elegantly economical in this volume; this spareness enhances the beauty, sometimes aching, that emerges from observations and dialog. In "The Street," for example, Tóibín's tender rendering of the thoughts and routines of a wounded Pakistani man convalescing in a dim, dark garret in Barcelona transmits both the isolation and longing that run through each story like distant birdsong, palpable yet barely perceived. VERDICT In this triumphant follow-up to his award-winning novel Brooklyn, Tóibín exhibits his familiar stylistic simplicity while extending his emotional reach and range in surprising ways. There's a mastery of romantic eroticism that calls to mind Camus's lush lyricism in "Return to Tipasa" and Exile and the Kingdom, as well as the seductive strangeness of Katherine Ann Porter's best-known short stories. For all readers of fiction. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10.]—J. Greg Matthews, Washington State Univ. Libs., Pullman
Kirkus Reviews

The Irish-born, award-winning novelist reconfirms his mastery of the short story.

Tóibínbroadened his readership and raised his profile with the exquisitely bittersweetBrooklyn(2009), and this collection is every bit as rich. Befitting an author who straddles cultures (he teaches at Princeton while retaining a home in Dublin), he peoples his stories with characters trying to navigate between different countries, often involving some reconciliation of a past and present. Many of the stories involve homosexual protagonists (engaged in sexual relations more explicit than anything in Brooklyn),with sexual identity practically another country, a boundary to straddle or cross. "The future is a foreign country; they do things differently there," he writes of the reunion in "The Pearl Fishers" of two men and a woman, friends from school, where the woman didn't know that the men had a physical relationship before she fell in love with one of them and married him. The story builds to the revelations that have brought them together again with the things that must remain unsaid. Though most of the stories involve family dynamics (as did hisMothers and Sons: Stories,2007), the narratives underscore "how apart people deeply and singly themselves." A strong sense of mortality also permeates the stories, as the first-person narrator of the title story meditates on how "I, like anyone else who was born, will be condemned eventually to lie in darkness as long as time lasts." The last story is the longest and one of the strongest, as the 68 pages of "The Street" find a Pakistani immigrant to Barcelona, brought there in a contemporary form of indentured servitude, learning so much about power, others and himself. It's a novel's worth of material compressed into a long story.

Likely to rank with the best story collections of the year.

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Sometimes when the evening had almost ended, Lady Gregory would catch someone’s eye for a moment and that would be enough to make her remember. At those tables in the great city she knew not ever to talk about herself, or complain about anything such as the heat, or the dullness of the season, or the antics of an actress; she knew not to babble about banalities, or laugh at things that were not very funny. She focused instead with as much force and care as she could on the gentleman beside her and asked him questions and then listened with attention to the answers. Listening took more work than talking; she made sure that her companion knew, from the sympathy and sharp light in her eyes, how intelligent she was, and how quietly powerful and deep.

She would suffer only when she left the company. In the carriage on the way home she would stare into the dark, knowing that what had happened in those years would not come back, that memories were no use, that there was nothing ahead except darkness. And on the bad nights, after evenings when there had been too much gaiety and brightness, she often wondered if there was a difference between her life now and the years stretching to eternity that she would spend in the grave.

She would write out a list and the writing itself would make her smile. Things to live for. Her son, Robert, would always come first, and then some of her sisters. She often thought of erasing one or two of them, and maybe one brother, but no more than one. And then Coole Park, the house in Ireland her husband had left her, or at least left their son, and to which she could return when she wished. She thought of the trees she had planted at Coole, she often dreamed of going back there to study the slow progress of things as the winter gave way to spring, or autumn came. And there were books and paintings and how light came into a high room as she pulled the shutters back in the morning. She would add these also to the list.

Below the list each time was blank paper. It was easy to fill the blank spaces with another list. A list of grim facts led by a single inescapable thought—that love had eluded her, that love would not come back, that she was alone and she would have to make the best of being alone.

On this particular evening, she crumpled the piece of paper in her hand before she stood up and made her way to the bedroom and prepared for the night. She was glad, or almost glad, that there would be no more outings that week, that no London hostess had the need for a dowager from Ireland at her table for the moment. A woman known for her listening skills and her keen intelligence had her uses, she thought, but not every night of the week.

She had liked being married; she had enjoyed being noticed as the young wife of an old man, had known the effect her quiet gaze could have on friends of her husband’s who thought she might be dull because she was not pretty. She had let them know, carefully, tactfully, keeping her voice low, that she was someone on whom nothing was lost. She had read all the latest books and she chose her words slowly when she came to discuss them. She did not want to appear clever. She made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated. She had no natural grace and she made up for this by having no empty opinions. She took the view that it was a mistake for a woman with her looks ever to show her teeth. In any case, she disliked laughter and preferred to smile using her eyes.

She disliked her husband only when he came to her at night in those first months; his fumbling and panting, his eager hands and his sour breath, gave her a sense that daylight and many layers of clothing and servants and large furnished rooms and chatter about politics or paintings were ways to distract people from feeling a revulsion towards each other.

There were times when she saw him in the distance or had occasion to glance at his face in repose when she viewed him as someone who had merely on a whim or a sudden need rescued her or captured her. He was too old to know her, he had seen too much and lived too long to allow anything new, such as a wife thirty-five years his junior, to enter his orbit. In the night, in those early months, as she tried to move towards him to embrace him fully, to offer herself to his dried-up spirit, she found that he was happier obsessively fondling certain parts of her body in the dark as though he were trying to find something he had mislaid. And thus as she attempted to please him, she also tried to make sure that, when he was finished, she would be able gently to turn away from him and face the dark alone as he slept and snored. She longed to wake in the morning and not have to look at his face too closely, his half-opened mouth, his stubbled cheeks, his grey whiskers, his wrinkled skin.

All over London, she thought, in the hours after midnight in rooms with curtains drawn, silence was broken by grunts and groans and sighs. It was lucky, she knew, that it was all done in secret, lucky also that no matter how much they talked of love or faithfulness or the unity of man and wife, no one would ever realize how apart people were in these hours, how deeply and singly themselves, how thoughts came that could never be shared or whispered or made known in any way. This was marriage, she thought, and it was her job to be calm about it. There were times when the grim, dull truth of it made her smile.

© 2011 Colm Tóibín

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Brief Biography

Dublin, Ireland
Date of Birth:
May 30, 1955
Place of Birth:
Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history

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The Empty Family 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
rossberliner More than 1 year ago
Colm Toibin writes very well He opens up his private self to infuse and color his stories. Unusual and specialized but fascinating and very well written.
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Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
THE EMPTY ROOM is a priceless collection of short stories from the brilliant author Colm Tóibín. It could be easily said that once hooked on Tóibín's writing the bond is permanent. This exquisite collection is a series of indecisive moments in the lives of folk who are well into middle life, shackled between remembered emotion and the inevitable aging tranquility that is their future. He creates a panorama of characters about whom we come to know and with whom we empathize, but at the same time these created people are laid out on the near-necropsy postmortem table for us to touch and examine and step away. The nine stories included in this volume include 'Silence', a story transplanted to another time in which a Lady Gregory, an abandoned widow who has lost her recent lover, has a peppery dinner conversation with Henry James. In 'The New Spain', 'exiles return to bury loved ones, and ruminate on what other past associates might be up to. A Leftist dissident from Franco's Spain comes back home to a cool reception at the family villa in Menorca.' 'The Pearl Fishers' is a "grim, almost plotless thriller with gay subplots" and "overwrought and graphically violent screenplays." Our hero is invited to have dinner with a married couple, a man named Donnacha and a woman named Grainne, both of whom he has known since they were at school together decades earlier. The two boys (as they were then) were lovers before Donnacha linked up with the fiery, strong-willed Grainne, a religious reformer who has gained some notoriety by insisting "that she and other like-minded lay people represented the true Catholic Church more than the bishops and priests." Much of what we read in The Empty Family is Tóibín's apparent obsessive interest in 'the principal torments available to the educated, Left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age. The men and women who brought us up, and bustled us off to the good schools they never got to attend, will weaken and die, and our professional success won't help them or us deal with that.' For this reader the most compelling story is the very genteel love story represented in 'The Street' - a tale of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona who somehow survive the threat of being outsiders and in the case of Malik and Abdul discover their same sex needs and find some fulfillment despite the narrow confines of living in a hostile world. Colm Tóibín is a Master Craftsman, a wordsmith without peer, and everything he touches radiates a magic that only he is capable of transforming ordinary lives into extraordinary experiences for the reader. This, then, is literary genius. Grady Harp
tosh-akin_54 More than 1 year ago
This book put me to sleep. First couple of chapters hard to follow,if a book doesn't grab you in first few chapters,its a done deal. I even tried to give this book another chance. I put it down and started reading again and just could not get thru it. Hated I paid $11.00 for this book,can I have my money back. Not a page turner.