Reviewed by Ted Gioia

According to the United Nations, some three percent of the
people in the world reside outside of their country of birth.  
The percentage is far higher in the fictive universe of Colm
Tóibín:  most of the tales in his short story collection
The
Empty Famil
y deal with these modern day migrants, and a
sense of dislocation and rootlessness permeates the
proceedings.  In tale after tale, Tóibín’s protagonists arrive
in new locales, but bringing plenty of baggage along for the
trip—and not the kind that fits into the overhead
compartment.  

Tóibín has long demonstrated an affinity
for Henry James, that preeminent literary
master of the upwardly and geographically
mobile and connoisseur of crisscrossing
national identities. Tóibín devoted a previous
novel to James,
The Master, and here
returns to this influential predecessor in
the opening story of
The Empty Family...
but with a different twist.   He starts by
quoting verbatim from a passage in James’s
notebooks, in which the novelist describes a
story told to him in conversation.  A clergy-
man discovers, in the midst of his honey-
moon, that his wife had a former lover, with
the result that he is neither able to consummate the marriage nor
terminate it. Tóibín uses this anecdote as a springboard for a short
story about Lady Gregory, the woman who recounted the tale to
James—imagining a rich scenario in which she disguises elements of

her own life in the gossipy narrative she shares with the famous
author.

Related Reviews
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
The Master by Colm Tóibín

James does not appear again in this volume, but his spirit hovers over
the comings and goings of many of its characters.  “Two Women,” one
of the most effective stories in the collection, chronicles the return to
Ireland of a film set designer who has enjoyed a long, successful career
in Hollywood, but now comes back to her land of birth to work on a
project, where she bristles at the slower pace of life and is shaken
when memories from her past come to life in unexpected ways.   The
Ireland-U.S. disjunction—which formed a major theme in Tóibín’s
recent novel
Brooklyn—figures as well in “One Minus One,” where the
narrator is an ex-pat who returns to Dublin to sit out the final hours
with his dying mother.   

A raw, confessional quality permeates these stories, and one suspects
that Tóibín—who has taught at several American universities and
experienced transatlantic dislocations first hand—is mixing large doses
of autobiographical material into these imaginative excursions. Tóibín,
who resided in Barcelona after finishing college, sets three of these
stories in Spain, and here again issues of culture clash loom large in his
plots.  In “The New Spain,” a young woman forced to leave the country
during the Franco regime returns home to claim an inheritance from her
grandmother, only to find herself immediately entangled in a tense
standoff with her parents. “Barcelona, 1975” chronicles the coming-of-
age of a young Irishman who has journeyed to Spain during the final
days of Franco’s rule—perhaps not coincidentally in the same period
that the author made this identical move.  “The Street” looks at poorer
immigrants from the Third World, for whom Spain is a foreboding and
hostile landscape where all the certainties of their previous lives are
upended.  

A dark tone permeates this volume, sometimes due to the subject
matter—aging and illness figure prominently in its pages—but even
when dealing with young, forceful protagonists, Tóibín reveals an
essentially dour worldview.   Reading his tales, I couldn't help but be
reminded of my Irish in-laws who came from county Mayo, where the
official motto is
Dia Linn, which translates as “God help us!”—a far cry
from the “Eureka! I have found it” of my native California.   As such,
the plot resolutions here rarely leave anything resolved, more stirred
up and angst-ridden, and sometimes ring untrue when they try to
reach for more.  On the final page of “The New Spain,” the heroine
Carme settles down, luxuriating in a sense of contentment and ease—
yet where it came from remains a mystery since, over the course of the
previous thirty pages, she has denounced, argued with and chased
away every member of her family, and is now absolutely alone and
untethered in a community where she lacks deep connections.

The longest story in the collection, “The Street” also takes place in
Barcelona, and presents a perhaps more typical account of modern-day
global migration—not of celebrated Hollywood types or articulate
author-academics, but of an unskilled worker who has traveled from
Pakistan to Spain in order to take a job as a barber. Tóibín artfully
paints a total picture of the challenges and hardships facing the new
arrival, from the most banal—learning a trade, shopping, cooking
meals—to the most metaphysical: connecting with others, carving out
a self-identity, dealing with loneliness and alienation.

This is Tóibín at his best.  He is the master of the unspoken, of the
internal dialogue as it gropes to come to the surface. In recent years, I
have often lamented the overly cinematic and
television-esque (not a
real adjective, but ought to be, given its applicability to much of what
surrounds us) tone of most current fiction. We truly live in a cinematic
age, marked by a conceptualization of the human condition in terms of
what can be seen, to its visual manifestations, to its most flamboyant
gestures—aided when necessary by computer-generated effects. In
this regard, modern lit is almost a total renunciation of the acute
Jamesian sense for the psychological and emotional currents that
fiction is preeminently capable of articulating and bringing to life.   


Colm Tóibín proves that, not only is this Jamesian tradition still alive,
but perhaps more necessary than ever, a corrective in a world in which
flat screens have also flattened our sensibilities.   His is a fiction where
only the smallest part of the action takes place on the surface, and
where those elements that computers can’t yet generate—regret,
heartache, recollection, self-awareness—still claim their rightful place as
the anchors of the gestures and tumult above.
The Empty Family

by Colm Tóibín
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