The Empty Family, By Colm Tóibín

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The Independent Culture

Lady Gregory, finding herself seated next to Henry James at a dinner table, takes the opportunity to pass on to the august novelist a story she has never told. That the story she tells is only a part of the truth isn't the point; it's hers, the tale of her ill-fated affair, and the real relief is in the retelling. The story is "Silence"; Gregory and James are both protagonists of earlier books by Colm Tóibín, but no other story his elegant new collection enters the lives of the famous.

Instead, the finest pieces here dwell on encounters - deliberate or designed - between people with entangled memories, shared but mutually witheld secrets, split perspectives on the same event. In "The Pearl Fishers", a middle-aged scriptwriter meets two old friends, bisexual Donnacha and his TV journalist wife Grainne. The (un)shared secret here is that while Grainne, as a teenager, was fornicating with a priest - a story she is about to make loudly public - Donnacha was having sex with the narrator.

It's always tempting for the reader to impose an over-arching theme on a collection of stories, and it's true that Tóibí* encloses us at times in an echo chamber. The cumulative effect of the book is of a long imaginative journey in which multiple themes echo one another. As we move from story to story, we find the starting-point has been left far behind. In the outstanding and poignant "Two Women", ageing Frances returns to Dublin to work on a film, and meets the woman for whom her long-time lover left her.

A sense of lives lived long beyond their turning-points haunts The Empty Family. Many of the protagonists return, after a painful or palliative absence, to an actual place – Dublin, Barcelona or elsewhere - but what they encounter is the traumatised spectre of their past selves.

These stories seem in some ways to parallel Tóibín's novel Brooklyn, both in their evocation of displacement, anomie and confusion, and in the control and economy of their prose. But there is a pent-up intensity in many that the novel did not match. Some pieces don't work - in the title story and "One Minus One", a ruminative first-person narrator attempts to chart an emotional experience in a lyrical, solipsistic style that isn't quite the author's forte. The overtly sexual "Barcelona, 1975", though handled with brio, takes us into Tóibín's version of Edmund White territory. Instead of affirming the free (gay) sexuality of a pre-Aids era, it gives the reader the faintly documentary experience of watching someone pick his nose on reality TV. One man's sexual pleasure is another one's tedium.

"The Street" - the longest and most unusual story - replicates in miniature the techniques of Tóibín's fiction, but with a new purpose. Here, in a Barcelona entirely lived in a continuous present in which no one seems to have much of a past, a young migrant finds himself attracted to his older roommate. They unite, part, are discovered and outed; they reunite, and go on. The twist isn't so much that the protagonists are all Pakistani men, or that they are portrayed with dispassionate tenderness by an Irish writer, but that in the end the origins of the author and the protagonists, and even their gender, hardly matter.

Aamer Hussein's 'The Cloud Messenger' is published by Telegram next March