The Empty Family – Colm Toibin

I’m not an avid reader of short stories, they usually leave me unsatisfied, but I loved Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s award winning recent novel so I decided to try again.  The Empty Family is a collection of nine short stories which are linked by the themes of exile, loneliness and family.  Most of the protagonists find themselves in limbo-like situations, caught in a pivotal moment where the past and present collide, where home and belonging seem vague and elusive concepts.

All of the stories (whether first or third person narratives) share Toibin’s sparse, restrained style which never spills over into mawkishness no matter how tragic the circumstances.  Of the nine, my personal favourites are Silence and The Colour of Shadows.  Silence features Lady Gregory, now a widow, reminscing about a previous affair with a young poet.  Her married life was devoid of romance yet she hangs onto the memory of this sweet but brief affair.  The Colour of Shadows also impressed me with its candid look at family relationships, both those filled with love and those lacking in love.

Despite the sadness underlying many of the stories, the characters never lapse into self-pity, on the contrary, they find their lives much more fulfilling than those “acted” out by more conventional types.  I found I had to slow down my reading in order to fully appreciate the intensity of the narratives, indeed it was more like reading a volume of poetry rather than prose.  The only downside to this collection for me was the inclusion of graphic sex scenes in some of the stories – this seemed to deviate from the overall tone of  “less is more” which permeates most of the anthology.  All in all, a very impressive read although I still prefer Toibin’s novels.

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