Colm Tóibín (2011) The Empty Family Penguin, London; 224 pp.; ISBN 9780141041773
Colm Tóibín’s works have close links to both his native Ireland and to Spain, the country with which he fell in love. He also has an abiding interest in the novelist Henry James. All of these come through in this collection of nine short stories, each concerned with the nature of family and home. Many characters in these stories are exiles or migrants in one way or another, having left home and family behind. Some were seeking new experiences, some escaping a troubled past, and others driven by poverty or an inability to live an authentic life where they were born.
‘The New Spain’, ‘Barcelona 1975’ and ‘The Street’ are all set in Spain, but cover very different ground. In the first, a woman in exile because of her political activities returns to a family that is still unable to accept her. The family is trying to sell the dead grandmother’s house but the woman defies them and tries to recreate the home she once knew. Though she benefits from her grandmother’s generosity, it is clear that she did not show great affection for the grandmother. She misses her ‘home’ but it is a home without a family.
‘Barcelona 1975’ is largely autobiographical and depicts a young and somewhat naïve man throwing himself into the gay demi-monde of the city, fuelled by alcohol, drugs and uninhibited sex. He makes cultural blunders and his memories are fractured by time, but you get the sense that this place will become a ‘home’ of some sort for him. Youth negotiating a complex and enigmatic world, yet driven by desire towards a goal that we often do not comprehend until old age, is evoked very well in this story, though those who like their sex on the tepid side might need to keep the smelling salts handy.
‘The Street’ traces the lives of Pakistani migrants on the streets of Barcelona, desperately trying to make the fortunes they cannot make at home. The complex interplay of relationships and the dangers of being outside the law are played out as the storm clouds of poverty hang over everyone, but even in these circumstances people yearn to love, to create family and to give meaning to their lives.
‘One Minus One’ and ‘The Empty Family’ look at exiles returning to Ireland because of a death in the family. The protagonist in the former has escaped to Texas and despite coming home it is clear that he is happy with the distance from Ireland and we know he will not stay. In ‘The Empty Family’ it is not clear whether the narrator will stay, though he has a strong sense of returning to a home, even if his parents are now both dead.
In ‘The Colour of Shadows’, Paul returns to see his aunt who is now in care but who raised Paul as her son. While his aunt is dying he cannot sleep in her house, but once she dies he decides to spend the night there. His biological mother is in the same town but she does not figure as ‘family’, so Paul will have to grapple with the questions of home and family long after we lose sight of him.
‘Two Women’ and ‘The Pearl Fishers’ are both about returning to encounter the memories of old lovers. In the former, 70 year old Francis realises this will be her last visit to Ireland. She recalls her long dead lover, Luke, then while shooting a film in a pub she meets his widow. The two women were separate dimensions of Luke’s life, aware of each other but never meeting. Their encounter acknowledges that mutual awareness but we know there will be nothing more – Luke as the link between them is now gone. In ‘The Pearl Fishers’, the writer meets up with a couple he knew at school. He had a sexual relationship with the husband but the spark of that has long died, and now the wife wants to expose a priest from the school who had sex with her when she was a pupil. They are meeting because the wife wants to cite the author in her book. As the author walks by himself into the dark night, it is clear he has no desire whatsoever to pursue the sad domesticity of the couple he once knew.
The story ‘Silence’ is a period piece and includes Henry James as a character. Lady Gregory had an affair which she kept a secret from her husband. The husband has died but she wants the story of that love to come out, so passes it to James in the hope he will immortalise it.
Tóibín’s stories show us that families take many forms but that the yearning is constant. Even in hard circumstances people will seek to create families and a sense of belonging. ‘Home’ is similarly complex. Sometimes a place is evocative but other times we return to a town that looks familiar on the surface but which no longer has the same resonance with our emotions. For others a new place becomes home, but exiles and migrants remain forever aware of more than one possibility.
Should we move away and live the émigré life, or do we stay and try to make our original home fit our desires? The stories here provide no clear answers to that question but much food for thought. There is also a sub-theme about the nature of love. The greatest love might not always be the one that is obvious to people looking on, but love is the driving force that allows us to create home and family in such diverse ways.
Tóibín is an exquisite writer. His style is often calm and measured, but he is also capable of conveying strong and deep emotions. The stories in this collection are a pleasure to read and raise questions that linger for a long time afterwards.