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Book Review: The Empty Family: Stories by Colm Toibin

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The Empty Family: Stories

by Colm Toibin

Scribner, January 4, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1439138328

Hardcover, $24.00

My copy: NOOKbook, $10.99

The Synopsis: from Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2011:

A young woman returning to the small island of her childhood summers; a nephew caring for his dying aunt; two men cautiously discovering love amid a community shrouded in tradition–these are the delicately rendered characters inhabiting Colm Toibin’s remarkable collection of short stories, The Empty Family. Toibin artfully constructs the quiet moments in the lives of individuals, examining the unexpected ways in which people become strangers to one another as families fragment, separate, and regenerate in new forms. With a tone that moves seamlessly between fervor and melancholy, Toibin examines the imperfect relationships of parents, children, lovers, and friends, and–with a befitting nod toward Henry James–the meaning of love in its many forms. In The Empty Family, Toibin proves once again that his mastery of language is matched only by his acute understanding of human longing. –Lynette Mong

The Review: The thing I love about short story collections is that they present good reading that can be taken in short doses and mulled over for as long as you see fit. This is a great set of stories for reading and mulling… simple in their construction, but some very complex in theme and symbolism. I’ve really enjoyed working my way through them and will certainly seek out more of Toibin’s work.

As the title implies, the over-riding theme of this collection tends to center around dysfunctional relationships, usually familial but not always so. Every story is perfused with a sense of emptiness and regret, though not so heavily that the book is depressing to read. Toibin has a very light touch and a gift for creating characters with whom it is easy to relate and empathize, even if their specific circumstances are as far from typical for you as can be imagined. The book begins with a very thoughtful nod to Henry James and an imagining of the story behind a single quote from James’ work. Because I adore all things related to Victorian-era literature, this story of Lady Gregory and her secret affair was easily my favorite. In another story, “Two Women”, an aging set decorator goes to work on a film in Dublin and has a chance meeting there with the widow of the only man she ever loved. It’s a very poignant story. “One Minus One” is narrated by a Texas man on the anniversary of the death of his mother and his ruminations on the loss of a former lover, whom he last saw at his mother’s funeral in Dublin. Another story, “The Colour of Shadows,” is heartbreaking and simple… the final days of a complex but loving relationship between an young gay man and his dying Aunt, who raised him.

In terms of sheer complexity, I think the best story of the collection is “A New Spain.” In it, a young self-proclaimed communist woman returns to Spain after 8 years’ exile to collect her inheritance after the recent death of her grandmother. That inheritance happens to be a private beach house. She arrives to find that much has changed in her absence. The path to the beach has been walled off and some of her grandmother’s furnishings have already been sold. In an ironic twist, our young communist finds herself enormously irritated that some of the land has already been sold off to build beach bungalows for the people. Amidst tense family relationships, she begins to plan the rebuilding of the legacy that she and her sister have inherited. In a highly symbolic moment at the end, she resolves to begin by having that wall torn down… an image which is, of course, highly symbolic of the fall of communism in Western culture. It’s a brilliant story and certainly the jewel of this collection.

The Bottom Line: I hereby declare the short story to be “the new black.” Everyone should be including them in their reading repertoires… and this is a great place to start.

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