Guest review: Genevieve Tucker on Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family

November 2010
9781405040235 (Aus, US, UK)

Reviewed by Genevieve Tucker

Much has been made around the traps of the fact that Colm Tóibín published a story in his last collection that used the word empty (and words deriving from it) fourteen times, though no one has bothered to acknowledge that the story in question was about an Irish bank robber trying to move a Rembrandt on the black market.

While it’s convenient to consider that The Empty Family has loss as a leitmotif, it takes a fan to recognise that it also functions as a Tóibín theme park: most of the stories dip into subject areas he has expanded on at length elsewhere. He now possesses the house more or less described in the title story, as well as the view on the coast he has written about so often in his fiction set in Ireland.

He has spoken of his delight in being able to take a firmer hold on a sense of place in his fiction upon first reading the work of Alistair MacLeod, the revered Canadian writer of the Scottish diaspora. However when Tóibín does this, it’s as part of a larger project that takes in other travellers, who (among other things) also ask themselves questions about possession.

I sometimes think that his entry into international writing appeared careful to the point of neutrality, his fiction peopled by figures intent on disguising their emotions and claims on others, until his astonishing performance in his award-winning bio-fiction about Henry James, The Master, where he displayed a surefooted use of American history sources. Tóibín is a history graduate and has written about Irish history in mainstream publications, reviewing Roy Foster’s groundbreaking leadership (perhaps invention) of the school of Irish revisionist history for the London Review of Books, among other things.[i]

That security with historical material is only one of the girders beneath the beautiful structure that houses his recreation of James’ life between the failure of the play, Guy Domville, and the purchase of Lamb House, his final home in Sussex. The other is the Jamesian control he has sought to develop throughout his writing career of indirect free style. That this technique would uncover such a rich and telling depiction of James himself, free of the slightest hint of parody, remains one of the exciting discoveries of modern fiction.

In a story collection, of course, indirect free style (or ‘third person intimate’ as Tóibín has recently called it) has a place, though some stories are more equal to its discursive challenges than others. This collection sees the use of first person narrative and the occasional shifting-spanner second person for perhaps the first time in any work I’ve seen by this writer, which may be a result of the time he has spent in recent years teaching writing in the USA. Where it is used, quite sparingly, it provides a welcome shift of pace, allowing the prose to breathe with an easier, more lyrical rhythm than the deeply reflective strictures of Jamesian narrative allow. It also allows for a more direct expression of emotion than one often sees in his work, including, characteristically, a confession from one narrator towards ‘a feeling as close to anger as I will ever be able to manage.’ The opening story, ‘One Minus One’, contains a reference to the faces of his countrymen in American airports and how easily they are identified that is all the more haunting for a cleaner attack on the matter:

“You know that I do not believe in God. I do not care much about the mysteries of the universe, unless they come to me in words, or in music maybe, or in a set of colours and then I entertain them merely for their beauty and only rarely. I do not even believe in Ireland. But you know too, that in these years of being away there are times when Ireland comes to me in a sudden guise, when I see a hint of something familiar that I want and need. I see someone coming towards me with a soft way of smiling, or a stubborn uneasy face, or a way of moving warily through a public place, or a raw, almost resentful stare into the middle distance. In any case, I went to JFK that evening and I saw them as soon as I got out of the taxi…”

For perhaps the first time also, I hear in ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a story about sex abuse in a seventies Irish college, and  ‘Two Women’, a story about a visiting Irish set designer, a new toughness, both in dialogue between the Irish characters and in the protagonists, that sees him entering the domain of his peers, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. Tóibín has not been known for embracing Dublin demotic, having infused his earlier books set in Ireland with a quieter, less aggressive county idiom. There is an interest building in Tóibín towards a deeper engagement with the whole country in his fiction that may be something to watch.

I also saw a brief, cynical aside about ‘seventies theology that I’d love to hear more about:

“It was awful, some of it, like Teilhard de Chardin crossed with Donovan or bad Bob Dylan. I know that Grainne must remember how involved I became in it, how profoundly I talked to God!”

The final story, ‘The Street’, is the longest and although its subject matter is Pakistani immigrant workers in Barcelona, it is closer in style and emotion to Tóibín’s other works about struggling, closeted gay men in restrictive cultures. While there is some violence breaking into the story of Malik, a bonded immigrant, this is an understated piece and the tenuousness of such a life is suggested, but at times is threatened with erasure by the smoothness of the descriptive surface. The movement at the very end of the story is characteristic of Tóibín’s tight yet elegiac control of emotion to date.

I found the story of Carme, the Spanish communist, returning to her village and reclaiming her grandmother’s beachhouse from her family (‘The New Spain’), more engaging, though I also enjoyed ‘Silence’, a story about a raffish poet that might or might not have been shared by a lady with Henry James.

There is more than a glimmer of future changes in subject matter and style for Tóibín afoot: in ‘Barcelona, 1975’, an account of sexual adventure that reads like memoir, there is a pretty clear and timely statement of intention to break free from bookclub strictures about what’s ‘nice’ to read.

I was very happy to hear him say in Melbourne earlier this year that if anything he has more ideas to work on than ever before. The Empty Family is far from ‘nice’– rather, this collection is a rich, inviting global airport lounge of a book from a great craftsman of our age, whose interests continue to ripen.

Genevieve Tucker is a freelance reviewer and semi-retired book blogger who has an internet scrapbook at Mulberry Road. She came to reviewing after the first editor of the Australian Literary Review read her blog. She blames Google for everything that has happened since.

[i] “New ways of killing your father.” London Review of Books, 15(22), November 1993. Available at:óibín/new-ways-of-killing-your-father

See also ‘Emmet and the historians’, originally published in The Dublin Review in 2003 and available on the Colm Tóibín website:

LiteraryMinded also recommends her interview with Tóibín regarding his novel Brooklyn. Part one can be found here, and part two here.

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