The Empty Family, Colm Toibin’s latest collection of short stories, is as satisfying, if not more so, than many a novel I’ve read recently.
The title story is an intense, lyrical, first-person account of a return to an isolated cottage on the coast of Co. Wexford, Ireland. The narrator meditates on the sea, exploring what it means to go home. What does family mean? It’s as much about acceptance as longing, squaring up to the limits of human existence.
‘One Minus One,’ has a similar lyric intensity – a story of loss, longing and the fear of intimacy. The ‘you,' to whom the story is addressed, we soon understand, is an ex-lover. The piece reads as if eavesdropping on a private conversation, creating a compelling intimacy in a story that, paradoxically, explores the impossibility of getting close those who matter most.
Both of those stories have about them an authenticity, an unmistakable sense of emotional truth. They read as much like life writing, memoir, as fiction. In an interview, Toibin once said of writing fiction, “You need to dig deep in yourself and use private things … the mining of your own memory and privacy is supreme.” In these stories and others in the collection it feels as if Toibin is close to home, even if specific events and details are changed.
As if to admit this he offers the story, ‘Silence’ – an exploration on the need to keep secrets, but also to speak of them in some form. It’s a dramatisation of Lady Gregory’s recalling an encounter with the novelist Henry James. As well as an astute exploration of marriage v. passionate affair, it’s a master class in how secrets get turned into art, how and why fiction gets written. This story alone is worth the price of the book.
Other stories such as ‘The Two Women,’ ‘The New Spain’ and ‘The Street,’ have a different voice and tone. Here, Toibin enters female lives or the lives of migrant workers. The narration is more journalistic – Toibin began his writing career as a newspaper man – the lens turned out onto the wider world.
If you aspire to write short fiction, this fine book is one to savour and to re-read.