The Empty Family, By Colm Tóibín

How modernity has driven our sense of rootlessness

David Mattin
Sunday 03 October 2010 00:00
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Colm Tóibín's last novel, Brooklyn, was published last year, and the updrafts of praise it generated still hold his reputation high in the literary atmosphere. It told the story of Ellis Lacey, who escapes 1950s rural Ireland for the US, only to find herself pulled back home. The Empty Family traverses similar ground: home, return, family, belonging.

As with Brooklyn, the nine short stories collected here are composed with a purity of vision and a seriousness that seem somehow of a different, more reflective age. But that is only an incidental impression: in fact, at the heart of The Empty Family is a deep-running concern for modernity, and the spiritual deformations that it visits on us. It's a collection that will only further fuel Tóibín's ascent through English fiction.

In "One Minus One", a narrator in New York remembers how, six years earlier, he flew back to Ireland to be with his mother as she died. In "The Empty Family", the narrator returns to Ireland from California, and addresses his reflections to the gay lover he left behind years before. These are intimate stories of a few pages, comprised of the sound of the mind at work. Elsewhere, "Two Women" tells of a film-set designer whose glacial poise is momentarily thawed when she encounters the widow of her former lover. Meanwhile, "The New Spain", a masterpiece of evocation, follows Carme Giralt as she returns to post-Franco Spain after a period of exile in London, to find her family, and Spain itself, changed, difficult.

These are stories, then, that play with ideas of distance – both physical and emotional. Repeatedly, Tóibín's characters find these distances impossible to bridge. In "One Minus One", our narrator reaches out to take his mother's hand, and tells us: "She did not respond to being touched." Meanwhile, Tóibín's fascination with return is, surely, a fascination with the collapsing of distances that return necessitates: the way that to return is to pitch the present moment hard up against the moment of leaving, so that the distance between the two is ruthlessly clarified.

Readers familiar with the arc of Tóibín's own life will discern it in these pages. As with two of his narrators, Tóibín, now 55, was sent to live with an aunt by his mother when he was a child. In 1975, aged 20, he left Ireland for Barcelona – an experience put to use by the story "Barcelona: 1975", in which a young gay man shakes off his sexual reticence.

But these stories are composed with a mastery that transfigures this lived experience. They are written with a deep, restrained lyricism, so that Carme in "The New Spain" notices "the whitened light... and the straight road like a ribbon", while the narrator in "The Empty Family" tells us "the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle".

It's the enormous precision with which these stories are made that feels, at first, almost old-fashioned; an antidote to our noise and ephemera culture. But read on and that feeling gives way to its opposite: that in The Empty Family Tóibí* has produced work with a rare and authentic connection with the world as it is now. Running deep beneath the stories is a concern for our new, modern rootlessness, and the collapse of old certainties.

In the final paragraph of "The New Spain", Carme reflects on her homecoming: "All around her now were foreign voices." She is alienated from her home, but reaches an accommodation with this feeling by reading a newspaper from the city she has just left. It is a small spiritual transformation, made possible by modernity. These moments have crept up on us, and Tóibí* has been sensitive enough to see it. They are a part of our lives now, and The Empty Family is wonderfully attentive to them.

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