Colm Tóibín's hard-won wisdom


SHORT STORIES: HEATHER INGMANreviews The Empty FamilyBy Colm Tóibín, Penguin, 214pp. £17.99

THE IRISH SHORT STORY can do many things. It can encompass folk themes, fairy tales, horror and ghosts. It can reflect social change or, following Frank O’Connor’s definition, hinge on a turning point or moment of crisis. In Colm Tóibín’s latest collection the form becomes a prolonged, and often poetic, meditation on myths of family and home and the elusiveness of love.

As with his previous collection of stories, Mothers and Sons(2006), Tóibín uses his title, The Empty Family, to nudge the reader towards an understanding of the guiding motif behind these stories. In depicting the traditional heterosexual family under pressure, Tóibín is of course tackling an iconic Irish theme: the centrality of the family unit in Irish life as enshrined in the 1937 Constitution. A key phrase in this collection describes “the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy”. Many of his protagonists are long past their first burst of energy and look back from the vantage point of middle age over loves gained and lost, choices made or evaded. They sway between independence and the insidious draw of home, like the narrator of the title story, The Empty Family, who with knowing self-irony observes: “I missed home. I went out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home.”

Another key theme of the collection, as the above quotation suggests, is exile and return. Many of these protagonists are lost and alienated from their past lives, their original homes and families being not of their choosing. The central question that each of them has to work out is, where does home lie? The stories come up with several answers: in a person, a place, work, nature. Sometimes, however, home is not to be found or, if it is found, as in the final story, The Street, about two gay Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona, it cannot be publicly acknowledged.

In one sense The Empty Familytakes up where Mothers and Sonsleft off, for the opening story, One Minus One, brings us back to the key motif of that first collection, namely the relationship between sons and their dead, absent or emotionally detached mothers. The narrator of One Minus One is an Irishman in America reflecting on his return to Ireland six years earlier for his mother’s death. As in the earlier collection, there is no idealisation of the mother figure: the mother-son relationship is thwarted as much by the mother’s wishes as by those of her son. Self-restraint may be a sign of strength, but it can also be a defence mechanism, and this mother and son carry emotional suppression too far: the narrator knows that there will be no deathbed reconciliation. There are never any second chances for Tóibín’s protagonists in these stories, and very often they would not welcome them.

In The Colour of Shadowsthe relationship with the mother is even more attenuated. Though she is back living in Enniscorthy, where the narrator, like Tóibín himself, grew up, and where he is visiting his dying aunt Josie, the mother remains nameless, reduced to an absent presence in her son’s life so that his only way of reaching her is through breathing the same air (the echoes of Beckett are distinct). Characteristically, Tóibín writes against the grain of readers’ expectations in this story – and he so contrives things that at the finish the reader no longer wants to believe in a reunion between mother and son, though, also characteristically, such a reunion remains a possibility.

Another story in the collection, Silence, brings together two historical figures Tóibín has written about before, Henry James and Lady Gregory, both skilled, like his mothers and sons, in evasion and self-suppression. In Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush(2003) Tóibín explored one aspect of Augusta Gregory’s double life, namely the split between her position as an Anglo-Irish landlord and her support for Irish nationalism. In SilenceTóibín uses an entry from James’s Notebooksto present another aspect of Gregory’s secret life: her brief passionate affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, which resulted in a series of sonnets written by Gregory but published under Blunt’s name. Almost more interesting than the account of their relationship, though, is Tóibín’s portrayal of the youthful Augusta skilfully overcoming her plainness by using her sparkling conversation to attract the interest of her male dinner partners while being careful, naturally, not to outshine them. It is the kind of performance that so fascinated Virginia Woolf in society hostesses and provides yet another example of Lady Gregory’s concealed inner life.

Readers familiar with Tóibín’s work will recognise in this collection many echoes from previous works – the themes of exile and return (and often exile again), the early loss of a parent, the mother-son relationship, gay love, secret lives in Ireland and Spain. The motifs are repeated but always with a slightly different twist, and this is the means by which a writer like Tóibín, as John McGahern before him, gives depth and resonance to his created world. The influences remain the same: Beckett, Hemingway and, above all in this collection, McGahern, particularly in the endings. Tóibín’s deceptively straightforward style continues to manage somehow to encompass both lucidity and ambiguity, precision and poetry.

There are advances in this collection. There is a certain hard-won wisdom, and one or two of the stories, notably One Minus Oneand The Empty Family, turn into moving poetic meditations on love and death and the inadequacy of language. There is also more warmth and an emphasis on the joys of gay love as contrasted with traditional family life. After great difficulties the lovers in The Streetfind a way to survive and an emotional home, of sorts, in one another. The writing, so precise and understated for most of the volume, moves towards describing what one wants to call happiness. Certainly the central character, Malik, believes he has found happiness, but then we, having learned not to trust the possibility of permanent happiness in Tóibín’s world, realise that Malik is an innocent and that his future happiness relies on trusting the word of one man, and a married one at that, in a society where their love has to remain secret. For Tóibín’s protagonists happiness remains fragile, even elusive, but, for the reader prepared to read slowly and savour the silences between the words, there are rich rewards in this collection.

Heather Ingman lectures in the school of English at Trinity College Dublin. She is the author of A History of the Irish Short Story, published by Cambridge University Press in 2009