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Elegy And Energy In Colm Toibin's 'Family' Stories

Jan 18, 2011

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Allow me to rave. Like his last two stunning novels, The Master and Brooklyn, the triple trinity of stories in Colm Toibin's new collection, The Empty Family, are at once elegiac and elegant. They are composed with a patient, quiet, utterly honest accrual of sparing detail (though punctuated occasionally by graphic gay sex, always more grave than frolicsome). They offer mesmerizing portraits of exile and regret, deep estrangement and emotional reticence that lead to profound yet not altogether unwanted solitude.

His characters are often middle-aged Irishmen who have left home with no desire to return again; by the time they do, it's frequently for the death of a close relative, to "a landscape of endings," empty houses, and "sad echoes and dim feelings."

Many have severed attachments not just with unhappy childhoods but with lost, less than perfect loves. Like Henry James, whom he profiled so vividly in The Master (and who appears in the masterfully multilayered story "Silence"), and like the young woman caught between two worlds in Brooklyn, they're a lonely lot, these characters. Yet for all that, aside from some twinges of regret, they prefer to maintain their distances, feeling better off protected by their emotional moats.

One example is Frances Rossiter, the steely septuagenarian set dresser in "Two Women" who returns from Los Angeles to shoot a movie in Dublin. Being back home after so long evokes memories of the only man she ever loved, an actor named Luke with whom she abruptly broke off a long relationship three decades earlier when she sensed he was losing interest in her. Toibin writes, "She did not allow herself to feel pain, then or afterwards," though she did feel some regret when Luke died, 10 years earlier. While setting up a tricky scene in a pub, a chance encounter with Luke's generous widow unfolds movingly.

It's the small connections that matter in these lives. In "The Color of Shadows," one of two stories previously published in The New Yorker, a man returns to Enniscorthy — Toibin's own hometown in County Wexford featured in much of his work — to move his aunt, who raised him, into a nursing home. Visiting her weekly, he learns that his mother, who abandoned him as a child, has returned. In the man's promise to his dying aunt that he will never see his mother, Toibin manages to wordlessly convey reams about pain and loyalty.

Three stories are set in Barcelona, where Toibin lived for three years in the late 1970s, and which he has written about before in his novel The South and his nonfiction Homage to Barcelona.

"The New Spain" is the sole misfit in the collection, featuring a rare, shrilly unsympathetic protagonist. Far more resonant is "The Street," the longest and most powerful story, about two migrant Pakistani workers, strangers in a strange, harsh world, who gradually develop an illicit bond. Their difficult relationship movingly, hauntingly helps redefine home and family. Like so much of what Toibin is writing lately, this beautiful love story deserves to become a classic.

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