Sebastian Smee

A fragile beauty

Colm Tóibín’s short stories hinge on lonely figures seeking what one of his narrator’s describes as ‘the chance… to associate with beauty’.

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The Empty Family

Colin Toibin

Penguin/Viking, pp. 214, £

Colm Tóibín’s short stories hinge on lonely figures seeking what one of his narrator’s describes as ‘the chance… to associate with beauty’.

Colm Tóibín’s short stories hinge on lonely figures seeking what one of his narrator’s describes as ‘the chance… to associate with beauty’. Either that, or mourning the loss of that chance.

It’s a fine subject, and in the nine stories collected in The Empty Family, Tóibín’s first publication since last year’s wonderful Brooklyn, he addresses it in narratives of remarkable scope and variety. The settings range from Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace) to Dublin, from Menorca to Barcelona, and in these various settings Tóibín describes the experiences of the young and the very old, homosexual and heterosexual, Irish and Spanish, all with equal assurance.

And yet, for all their range, Tóibín’s stories are curiously all of a piece. The author brings to his varicoloured characters the same patient attentiveness, the same empathy unclouded by sentimentality, the same pellucid style.

Those familiar with Tóibín’s novels will, moreover, find intriguing correspondences here. The final story, for instance, ‘The Street’, transposes Brooklyn — the story of a heterosexual Irish girl adjusting to her solitary, hardworking life in Brooklyn in the 1950s — to the experience of a homosexual Pakistani man sent to work in Barcelona in the period after Abu Ghraib. All the key terms, in other words, are wildly discordant. And yet it feels, in essence, like the same story: a young unwilling immigrant encountering love.

And just as Tóibín’s 2004 novel, The Master, was a fictional reconstruction of the internal life of Henry James, which drew liberally from James’s notebooks, the plot of ‘Silence’ is seeded by one of the entries in those notebooks. Its main character is haunted by ‘a single inescapable thought — that love had eluded her, that love would not come back, that she was alone and would have to make the best of being alone’.

Not all the central characters are plagued by similar thoughts: there is plenty of bliss, both remembered and anticipated, to spread around (one story in particular, ‘The Pearl Fishers’, is unforgettably explicit about a moment of homosexual pleasure). But when bliss and beauty arrive, as if out of nowhere, they seem incredibly fragile — right on the cusp either of not having happened, or of being destroyed.

The finest story here is ‘The Colour of Shadows’. Set in present-day Enniscorthy, it tells of a gay man who must arrange to move his aunt into a nursing home. This aunt has been like a mother to him. She took him into her care before he was eight. His own mother, of whom he has no real memory, was an alcoholic.

Now, as he tends to his aunt during her slow deterioration, visiting her from Dublin whenever he can, he learns that his birth mother is alive and has moved back to Enniscorthy. The emotional strain and complexity beneath the surface of this simple enough tale is handled without a hint of melodrama. Everything is patiently described. Tóibín at such moments is like an attentive draughtsman unhurriedly hatching shadows and highlights, letting the observed thing speak (or choose not to speak) for itself.

‘The Pearl Fishers’, too, is an impressive feat — Tóibín’s mischievous attempt to weave Irish Catholicism, political fundamentalism, the call of beauty, and the sexual transgressions of priests into one coherent tale. These are themes he has addressed in recent essays in the London Review of Books. And as with those essays, he seems less interested here in joining the debate than in exploring moral complications and ambiguities. If there is a certain air of contrivance to the fiction, it’s saved by the verve, the humour and the frankness of the telling.

Tóibín’s familiarity with Spain — the abrupt, tourist-driven changes wrought on village life in places like Menorca; the pulsing urbanity of Barcelona — provides a welcome diversion from his Irish tales. ‘Barcelona, 1975’ and ‘The New Spain’, in particular, are filled with fresh, alert observations and a spirit of liberation.

Four stories are written in the first person, in a tone that is wistful, pensive, accustomed to unfulfilled yearning. The rest, in the third person, are stringent and lucid; not a pretentious word or an over-elaborated emotion in sight. A quality of innocence — the sweet, guiltlessness of yearning as it operates in free-flowing consciousness from moment to moment — pervades all.