If you’ve never heard of Colm Toibin, it’s time to see what you’ve been missing out on. After two decades of internationally acclaimed journalism, novels, and nonfiction studies, Toibin’s second short story collection, The Empty Family, draws on many of his best themes and influences for a satisfying representation of the author’s sensibilities. Those familiar with his work or who have listened to Toibin’s audiobooks before will also find a delightful surprise. Among a host of other narrators, this time two of the stories are narrated by Colm Toibin himself.
The pieces vary widely in length, but each stays close to the fundamental truth of peoples’ inability to adequately communicate with one another, even, or perhaps especially, with their closest friends and family. Ireland is the primary setting, as Toibin has spent most of his life there, but there are a few excellently colorful forays into places like Barcelona, where Toibin lived for much of the late 1970s. A particularly poignant story is narrated by Broadway touring legend Alma Cuervo, who tells of a young Communist activist returning home after the fall of the Franco regime to find her disapproving family deeply in debt and pressuring her to sell her grandmother’s beloved beach house to touristy condo developers.
But the two short works narrated by Toibin himself certainly steal the show. Among several Irish narrators, the unique texture of Toibin’s throaty molasses will send shivers down your spine. Listening to the author read his own work adds a poetry and a sadness to the missed connections that is a brilliant revelation. His rusty lisp completely conveys the profound searching and longing that these characters are going through. Some of the characters face their demons in Catholic school, some in the hospital, and some in the bars they used to frequent. Some reconnect happily, some are left with loose ends, and some are determined to just keep running from the unfortunate past. Any way you slice it, this is a very good selection of Colm Toibin’s work, and the chance to hear him interpret characters in his own voice is pricelessly enlightening. Megan Volpert
From the internationally celebrated author of Brooklyn and The Master, and winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, comes a stunning new book of fiction.
In the captivating stories that make up The Empty Family, Colm Tibn delineates with a tender and unique sensibility, lives of unspoken or unconscious longing, of individuals often willingly cast adrift from their history. From the young Pakistani immigrant who seeks some kind of permanence in a strange town, to the Irish woman reluctantly returning to Dublin and discovering a city that refuses to acknowledge her long absence, each of Tibn's stories manage to contain whole worlds: stories of fleeing the past and returning home, of family threads lost and ultimately regained.
Like Tibn's celebrated novels, and his previous short story collection, Mothers and Sons, reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, The Empty Family will further confirm Tibn's status as "his generation's most gifted writer of love's complicated, contradictory power." (Los Angeles Times)
©2011 Colm Toibin (P)2010 Simon & Schuster
Toibin presents nine moving stories about love, loss, and longing that span decades, eras, countries, and lifestyles. The effect of such diversity is the recognition of the emotions we all share. In the opening story, Lady Gregory, young wife of an older and no longer terribly interested husband, falls into a dangerous and short-lived affair with a married poet. Two of the stories deal with young men handling the deaths of the mother figures in their lives. In "One Minus One," a young Irish man, now living in Texas, recalls his earlier return to Dublin for his mother's funeral and the loss of his gay lover. In "The Colour of Shadows," Paul, a young gay Irishman, must take responsibility for the last days of the aunt who raised him as she falls deeper into Alzheimer's and ill health. Aunt Josie tends to forget who he is, and when she remembers, she expresses rigid disapproval of his lifestyle. "Two Women" features an elderly, cantankerous but renowned set designer who returns to Dublin to work on what may be her last film. Along the way, she finds herself reminiscing about an early love. The longest and perhaps most touching story in the collection, "The Street" focuses on two Pakistani men who fall in love while working under exploitive conditions in post-Franco Barcelona.
Toibin's gentle, poetic prose hits just the right notes for each of these stories. He reminds us that, even though we inevitably realize that love is not necessarily forever, it's part of the human condition to yearn for it, seek for it, bring it back to life within our hearts and minds, if only as the shadow of a memory.
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