"The Empty Family" by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 275 pages, $24)
Toibin, author of the novels "The Master" and "Brooklyn," here presents nine stories expressing desire and regret. Many seem to come from the perspective of late middle age, when one looks back at a youth filled with yearning, faces a present full of loss and nostalgia and peers ahead at one's end in death.
The opening story, "Silence," begins with a long quote from "The Notebooks of Henry James" about an incident told him by Lady G. Toibin uses this to spin a detailed story involving a Lady Gregory and a long-ago love affair that still affects her; she longs to reveal a secret that was never told.
The title story, like others, involves a man returning to Ireland to visit relatives. In a scene filled with metaphor, the narrator looks through a telescope at the waves in the harbor. "The waves were like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty," he writes.
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This nostalgic tone devolves into resignation as he watches one wave withdraw "in a shrugging irony" and "go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy."
This could describe many of the characters in these stories, who in youth are energetic with love and desire but in later years recede into a resignation that feels empty yet with a sense of relief.
"One Minus One" is addressed to a former lover and describes a man who must interrupt his life in Manhattan to return to Ireland, where his mother is dying. After she dies, he returns to New York and sees that it is "too late for everything," that he will not "be given a second chance." Yet this strikes him "almost with relief."
In "The Pearl Fishers," one of the best stories in this collection, a man has dinner with a former lover and his wife, who doesn't know about their gay affair years earlier in school. After they part for the night, the narrator imagines the couple's "easy rituals of mutuality and closeness" but decides he wouldn't exchange his own life with theirs. Then he finds his keys in his pocket, a gesture that makes his resignation feel empty.
In "The New Spain," a woman returns to her native Barcelona (the setting for several of these stories) after the fall of Franco and finds a rift between her and her family that stems from her Communist activism years earlier and has grown wider through a conflict over her grandmother's will. She leaves behind her political ideals and settles into her beachfront property as she feels "a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would come her way."
Two other stories deserve mention. "The Colour of Shadows" tells of Paul, a man in Ireland who returns to his hometown to care for his aunt, his mother's sister-in-law, who raised him after his mother abandoned him as a child. Like many of these stories, it is told in an understated way. Paul not only experiences the loss of his aunt but feels rejection by his Irish Catholic family of him as a gay man.
The book ends with a novella-length story, "The Street," about the romance between two Pakistani men recently arrived in Barcelona, who live and work in the claustrophobic environment of that immigrant community. Toibin draws out the story with poignant detail and draws readers into their lives to such an extent that we want to know what happens to them after the story ends.
Toibin's collection is well-written and evokes the pain of growing up and looking back on one's life. The stories, which include some graphic depictions of sex, will not speak to everyone, but their craft remains.