The Empty Family


By Colm Tóibín

Scribner. 288 pp. $24

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Reviewed by Steven Rea

The people in Colm Tóibín's potent new story collection - a film set designer, an academic, a young, gay Dubliner in Barcelona, a widow who finds herself at a dinner party alongside Henry James - live in spiritual isolation.

They may have lovers, or friends, or family. They may move through Europe and America, through big cities and moonlit Texas emptiness, commingling and communicating, but ultimately they retreat into their own solitude. Memories are revisited, dissected for meaning, steeped in regret.

A writer whose spare prose rings with clarity and music (is it possible to come out of Ireland and not have music in your words?), Tóibín is not Mr. Smiley Face. His aching 2009 novel, Brooklyn, followed an Irish girl's move to New York in the 1950s, and her struggles to assimilate, and in The Empty Family the protagonists are similarly displaced - geographically, emotionally. They rummage through their pasts as they navigate unfamiliar new worlds, or find themselves revisiting worlds once known, now irrevocably changed.

It's no accident (of course not) that the expat literary giant Henry James figures prominently in "Silence," the leadoff story in The Empty Family. Tóibín is the author of The Master, a novel about James' lonely final years in England, and in "Barcelona, 1975," one of the shortest of the pieces here, the late-period James is read ravenously by a young Irishman's gay Spanish lover.

James' focus on Americans in Europe - a stranger in a strange land's perspective, and melancholy - is echoed all through Tóibín's book. In "Silence" (inspired by a 1894 citation in James' journal), a woman recalls her passionate affair with a poet - an affair she had kept from her late husband and from anyone, until she decides to "lodge" her secret with the famous novelist.

In both "Two Women" and "The New Spain," women return to their respective homelands after years away. In the first, Frances, a distinguished set designer with decades of experience in Hollywood, comes home to Dublin to work on a director's project. She is given a young, efficient assistant, Gabi, who seems cheerfully immune to the older woman's caustic demands. And after hard, long days of dealing with lighting, cameramen, and crew, re-dressing an old pub when building one on a soundstage would have, in her mind, been simpler, Frances is ready to quit Dublin for her home in California.

"The lowness of the buildings," Tóibín writes, "shops that were cheap imitations of larger and better stores in bigger cities, ways of dressing that were either shabby or pretentious, and ways of moving in the street that lacked alertness or any style, all began to irritate her."

Frances' critical appraisal, however, masks a profound emotional connection: the reminders, everywhere, of the long, loving relationship she had with a well-known actor.

Carme Giralt, the young and aloof Communist in "The New Spain" who returns to Barcelona after eight years in London - with Franco dead and democracy restored - finds herself dealing with her mother, father, and sister, and with a house bequeathed to Carme by her grandmother. There is little love to be had between the daughter and her parents. Resentment and disconnection are palpable.

In the long closing story, "The Street," Malik, a teenage immigrant worker from Pakistan, living in one small corner of Barcelona, falls into love with another, older Pakistani man. Their close and taboo relationship, violating Muslim codes, becomes a thing of shared exile and trust. Tóibín's book ends on a note of muted triumph, in fact, with the two men "slowly walking away from everything as though they could, but not minding too much when they had to turn back and face the city again."

Steven Rea is an Inquirer movie critic. Contact him at 215-854-5629 or