Colm Tóibín’s 2011 collection, The Empty Family is a book I always keep close at hand, dipping into the pages to take in the voices. Tóibín’s stories mine the loneliness of living outside your home country, and his characters confront the pull of the familiar, and the tensions and irrevocable distance from family and places. His prose, in both fiction and nonfiction, is emotional, precise, and full of startlingly vivid detail.
Tóibín is the author of numerous novels and nonfiction—including The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004), winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, as well as the novel Brooklyn—resides in both Ireland and the U.S., and the sense of dislocation, one V.S. Naipaul described as being between two worlds, is strong in these stories. As Jane Smiley, (A Thousand Acres) observed, “Tóibín’s tone is so quiet and interiorized that we even believe that the narrator is doing what he has been told to do as we are reading his story.”
That deliberateness, delivered in a plainspoken style Tóibín has described as akin to an instruction manual, makes for stories that are always satisfying. Characters return to former places, or find themselves in unknown ones, and the past and present are thrown into stark relief.
In “Two Women,” a successful set dresser, Frances Rossiter, returns to Dublin for a film project, and unexpectedly encounters Rachael Swift, the young widow of Luke Freaney, a charismatic actor with whom Frances had a twelve year affair. Now in her late seventies, Frances is successful but alone, an Irish woman who lives in Los Angeles but is grappling how, upon her death, her body can be returned to Ireland. Typical of Tóibín’s turns of story, the encounter with Rachael is brief, so brief you could miss the monumental understanding it brings for Frances: “The years had passed; it was as simple as that. Luke had been loved and cared for; this woman would have watched over him as he was dying like no one else.”
Tóibín’s prose style gathers detail in a way that barely registers with the reader—an effect of careful ordering and syntax. Objects rarely precede subjects, figurative language is minimal, and emotion remains at a distance. As here, when a young man, Paul, returns from Dublin to manage the affairs of the aunt who raised him when she’s hospitalized after a fall: “It was a crisp winter day, and he was surprised, as he always was when he visited Enniscorthy, by the volume of traffic and the new roundabouts and the tiny scale of things that, when he was growing up, had seemed to him like monuments.” There’s nothing earth-shattering there, but to paraphrase Naipaul, half a writer’s work is stating what a reader knows but has never found a way to express. And Tóibín’s familiar expressions are virtuoso.
Small, crystallizing moments are what the short story does best, and the quiet fractures that define a story like “Two Women,” are similarly stealth in “The New Spain.” A young woman, Carme, returns to the family home in Balearic Islands after years of self-exile in London, and unexpectedly finds herself in control of her grandmother’s estate, which includes the finances of her estranged parents. Tóibín unpacks a shadow story in the changing landscape of the island, its increasing tourism and beachfront development, but it’s the shift of family power that most reverberates. The family strain culminates in a falling out that launches an unexpected revision of Carme’s life, as profound for her as it is for the reader:
The first thing she would do, she thought, was find a contractor to knock down the new wall that cut her grandmother’s house off from easy access to this beach. She would consult no one about that. She would begin the search in the morning when she had paid the antiques dealer for her grandmother’s furniture. In the meantime, she would read in in the newspaper about England, where she had been for eight years, and then she would have a good night’s sleep, alone, in peace. As she raised the glass of cold beer to her lips, she felt a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would ever come her way.”
Tóibín, who teaches creative writing at Columbia University and the University of Manchester, has a similarly austere approach to his work. He’s said that productivity is reliant on delayed gratification—putting off breakfast, for example, until a number of pages are generated—doesn’t believe in getting too comfortable. Of his writing space, he’s said, “The chair is one of the most uncomfortable ever made. After a day’s work, it causes pain in parts of the body you did not know existed. It keeps me awake.” And he doesn’t settle into story conventions either, recently telling the Guardian, “People love talking about writers as storytellers, but I hate being called that…Ending a novel is almost like putting a child to sleep – it can’t be done abruptly.”
Though my favorite quote of Tóibín’s may be on the subject of finishing. As struck as I was about his detail of the hard chair, this is an observation that has stayed with me: “Finish everything you start. Often, you don’t know where you’re going for a while; then halfway through, something comes and you know. If you abandon things, you never find that out.”