Monday, March 14, 2011

The Empty Family

CoverThe Empty Family, by Colm Toibin, is a poignant short story collection built around the themes of exile, past loves, and bereavement. Yet the stories--all nine--are so much more. Toibin looks intensely at characters no longer living in the places of their birth, in this case, Ireland. They look with longing at the physical surroundings that once were home to them.

The title story, "The Empty Family," is one of the most evocative in the collection. In it, the narrator is addressing, perhaps in a letter, a former lover. He has returned to Wexford County, Ireland, a verdant area bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. His former house is kept clean, its bills paid from his current home in San Francisco.

Describing the beach in Point Reyes (Northern California), the narrator calls it a "passionate and merciless sea...the Pacific Ocean at its most relentless and stark...: (p. 28)

"I missed home. I went to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home." (p. 29)

The home he wistfully describes is that of a gentler ocean, a longer history, and the burial place of his forebears. Memories of his great love, the man he writes to, are part of the place he now visits. Yet, the narrator is not despondent. He finds peace and a sense of identity in the breaking waves.

"There was whiteness and grayness in it and a sort of blue and green. It was a lie. It did not toss, nor did it stay still. It was all movement, all spillage, but it was pure containment as well, utterly focused just as I was watching was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing. Instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy." (p.27)

Colm Toibin has written a collection of stories that picture men and women whose conflicting loyalties have brought them to the place they are now. His characters are resilient, despite poverty, loss, and deep regret. They have made peace with the difficult choices and inherent sacrifices. It is Toibin's ability to capture this essence, in magnificent writing, that makes him one of the great authors of our time.

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