Colm Tóibín’s Empty Family

Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family (Picador 2010)

I’ve read very little by Colm Tóibín – his book on Barcelona, an extraordinarily spoilerish review of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and that’s pretty much the lot. This collection of nine short stories, which has been beside my bed for a while and which I decided to read just now as possibly better suited to post-nasal-surgery times than a single longer work, is my introduction to his fiction.

While there are no characters who recur, and nothing like a discontinuous narrative, the book feels coherent – a number of the stories are about people returning to their country of origin after a period of exile, self-imposed or otherwise; many of them deal with Gay male experience; they are mostly set in Ireland or Barcelona, and in all of them connection with place and the people of the place are significant. An elderly Irishwoman returns to her native Dublin after a long absence to design a film set; after the fall of Franco, a Barcelona Communist returns from exile and encounters the old and new Spains; an Irishman returns from New York when his mother is dying. ‘The Pearl Fishers’ traces a delicate, questioning path through the Irish Catholic Church’s sex scandals. ‘The street’, the longest story, traces the developing relationship between two Pakistani indentured labourers in Barcelona.

I don’t know if I would have been quite so struck by this book’s Not Safe For Work bits if I hadn’t read it immediately after Philip Roth’s The Humbling, but I was struck by them. In three of the stories, there are graphic accounts of sex, probably more specific than the ones in The Humbling, but where at one stage Roth’s narrator protests, ‘This was not soft porn,’ Tóibín’s narrator and his characters are too engaged to need any such disclaimer. Both writers describe activities that I personally have no urge to participate in – Roth’s account makes me wish I’d somehow missed those pages; Tóibín’s prose manages to shed light on the nature of desire. ‘Barcelona, 1975’ reads as memoir, or at least conte à clef, and has an almost anthropological feel to it: this is how we did things in the dying days of the Franco regime, this is some of what we learned, and in particular this is how it felt.  Everywhere in his writing, you can feel the connections between people, again in stark contrast to the despairing isolation in the Roth book. That’s got to do with their different subjects, of course: Roth is writing about the loss of creativity. But I suspect I’m talking about something that goes much deeper in each writer – perhaps a cultural difference between Irish Catholic, lapsed or otherwise, and New York Jewish intellectual who is only as successful as his latest creation.

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