Colm Toibin writes of isolation, disaffectation

Book Review: "The Empty Family: Stories," by Colm Toibin. Scribner, $24.


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Since the 1990s, the Irish writer Colm Toibin, 55, has capably carried on the fine literary tradition of his country in his novels and short stories. This is his second collection of stories, following 2009's moving and poignant novel, "Brooklyn."

The nine stories here vary widely in voice and setting, but not tone. His characters, many Irish, some gay, are isolated or disaffected from their surroundings, their families or lovers.

Two stories -- "The Pearl Fishers" and "One Minus One" -- could possibly be about the same character, a gay Irishman forced to recollect and relive the painful past.

In the latter, a man starting a teaching post in New York is called home as his mother nears death. He's never forgiven her for leaving him and his brother at an aunt's house while she cared for their dying father. She never called or visited her sons.

"... I could feel that this going home to my mother's bedside would not be simple," he thinks, "that some of our loves and attachments are elemental and beyond our choosing, and for that very reason they become spiced with ... a feeling as close to anger as I will ever be able to manage."

Yet, it's only after she dies that the son realizes he's missed the opportunity to close that gap with his mother. "... I saw that it was too late now, too late for everything."

He is not saddened by this thought, just relieved.

It's a chilling commentary on emotionally dead lives.

In the former story, a gay man is having dinner with a former lover from school who's now married to a Dublin woman about to publish a tell-all book about her affair with a priest. But, the two men have a greater sin to hide.

This story, full of the tiny details of contemporary and conventional life in present-day Dublin, rejects that life of "easy rituals," affirming the narrator's choice to remain true to his course.

If Mr. Toibin has a role model, it would be Henry James, the subject of his novel "The Master" and a character in the first story in this book, "The Silence."

For James, details, gestures, words unsaid were the tools of his complex novels, Mr. Toibin uses them here, sometimes too artificially, as in the story "Two Women," more often with the same subtlety of his literary master.

While he's unsubtle in his descriptions of sex, Mr. Toibin is at his best dealing with matters of the heart and soul. This is a challenging collection of stories but a satisfying test of intellect and sympathy.


Book editor Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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