The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín 

The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín’s most recent collection of stories (released in 2011), is a book I always keep close by, dipping into the pages that on each reading  remain fresh and affecting. Tóibín’s stories unfold with searing emotional accuracy. For me, the narration has an almost hypnotic quality, and the perceptions finely turned, whether relaying a character’s thoughts or the landscape, say, of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland where Tóibín was born and grew up.

Tóibín now lives both in Ireland and the U.S., and is the author of numerous books of nonfiction as well as novels, including The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004), winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the recent, Nora Webster.

The nine stories in The Empty Family center on characters who confront the absence or presence of family experience in which there exists some unrecoverable loss or distance. Whether they live outside their native country or have returned after years away, they  grapple with the pull of home, with the heightened sense that comes from being an outsider, and the tensions of character and place. We are never the same, after all, once we leave home, and Tóibín’s work beautifully mines how shifts in identity come into conflict with personal history.

The novelist Jane Smiley observed that “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, what Tóibín has described as something like an dictating an instruction manual, makes his stories addictive and utterly satisfying. As here, at the conclusion of “The New Spain.” A young woman, Carme, has returned to the Balearic Islands after years of self-exile in London, and finds herself in control of her grandmother’s estate and the finances of her estranged family, though not before a falling out that launches this unexpected revision of
her life:

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.

-Lauren Alwan

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