Four years after the publication of his short story collection Mothers and Sons and on the heels of his novel Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín returns with The Empty Family, another group of stories that will only enhance his stature as an esteemed author of literary fiction.
As was true in Mothers and Sons, this collection features a unifying theme—the often unsettling, sometimes painful experience of return. In “Two Women,” Frances Rossiter, an aging Hollywood set dresser, comes back to Dublin to work on a film, where her journey is shadowed by the memory of a deceased lover. The narrator of “One Minus One,” now living in Texas, reflects on the painful trip he made to his dying mother’s bedside in Ireland six years earlier.
“The Colour of Shadows” tells of the protagonist’s encounter with the Enniscorthy house where his aunt raised him, a dwelling she must now abandon for a nursing home. And in the title story, the unnamed first-person narrator, his eyes fixed on the Irish coastline, muses on the cycle of exile and return, “the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.”
Perhaps to avoid being pigeonholed as an Irish writer, Tóibín has set three of these stories in Spain, including two in Barcelona, where he lived for a time in the 1970s. “Barcelona, 1975,” which takes place in the year of Franco’s death, is an unabashedly frank account of the sexual exploits of young gay men in that era. Balanced against the occasionally shocking carnality of that story is the moving entry “The Street,” the volume’s longest tale. Told from the perspective of Malik, a Pakistani immigrant struggling for survival in Spain, it recounts with the utmost tenderness the young man’s forbidden love affair with a fellow immigrant.
Colm Tóibín’s stories draw their power from his empathy and close observation, not dramatic incidents or arresting plot twists. Each, in its own quiet, meticulous way, examines a different aspect of our quest to find what meaning we can amid the travails of daily life.