‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2011.

Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family is a collection of exquisitely written short stories all framed around the idea of people — alienated and alone — seeking love or solace or a semblance of normality.

Many of them are set in Spain (Tóibín lived there from 1975-1978, as detailed in his travelogue Barcelona), with the rest in his native Ireland. They depict “lost” characters beset by family problems or issues — estrangements, absences, death — which have dominated and shaped their lives.

Each story is as finely crafted as his novels (many of which are reviewed here), written in that same eloquent prose and focusing on many of the themes that often occur in his work — missing mothers, childhood abandonment, unconventional families, hiding your homosexuality and exile abroad, just to name a few.

There are nine stories in total — all bar one (“Silence”) are set in the modern-day — and they vary in length from around 30 pages to 60 pages, but the last story (“The Street”) is 150 pages and has previously been published as a novella by Tuskar Rock Press. A handful feature explicit gay sex — you have been warned.

The New Spain

Rather than outline every story, I am going to focus on one that I really admired.

“The New Spain” examines what happens when Carme Giralt, a Catalan woman who has spent eight years living in London, returns to Spain after the death of her beloved grandmother.

Carme had previously been banished from the family home for being a Communist and was taken in silence to the airport by her father — “his rage against her palpable and elemental as he stood watching to make sure that she made her way through the departure gates” — but her grandmother sent her money every month to help her out.

In her will, her grandmother has left the family holiday home, on the coast in Menorca, to Carme and her sister. Carme has very fond memories of this house, of the sunshine, of the seafood, of endless days swimming at the beach. When she returns to the house after a long absence, she finds her parents holidaying there, along with her sister and her sister’s children. Her welcome is not a warm one. There are unspoken tensions.

Carme is surprised to find that the home, once surrounded by olive trees, is now surrounded by rows of new houses that obstruct views of the ocean. Even the path to the beach has become blocked by development. When she expresses her displeasure at the way in which this holiday spot has become an eyesore she is warned not to complain because her grandmother sold the land to developers so she could afford to send monthly payments to Carme in London. Her father was part of the development scheme and now he’s in financial trouble and wants to sell the bungalows.

Her family bemoan the fact that the area has changed, that it has become beset with tourists and now they prefer to swim in their own pool rather than go to the beach, yet they fail to see the role they have played in facilitating this change.

The story focuses on Carme’s decision to continue to do her own thing, to defy her family’s idea of what she should be and how she should behave. It looks at what happens when she discovers she now has power over her father for she’s inherited a clause that says if he wants to sell any of the new houses that he has built he requires her signature, as part-owner of her grandmother’s house, to do so.

Tóibín writes about complicated family situations so well, and he does a good line in fierce, independent women — this short story exemplifies this. What I also love about Toibin’s writing is that he manages to create entirely believable worlds and backstories, dripping with melancholia but never being too bleak, and often filled with tender moments. There is always a sense of hope, of optimism that things will turn out okay in the long run.

The New Spain highlights how a person’s interior world can barely compete with the change that happens in the exterior world. I liked how Tóibín juxtaposes the politics of Communism with the get-rich-quick-schemes of Capitalism without ever being obvious about it. He does everything in such a nuanced way, never shying from the contradictions and complexities that life and politics throw at us.

In fact, that could be said of all the stories in this collection. Nothing is black and white, cut and dried here, in much the same way as our messy family lives are just that — messy. I loved spending time in these perfectly encapsulated worlds.

The Empty Family was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in paperback circa 2012, but read the Kindle edition, which I purchased in June 2019 having forgotten that I had a copy already. Does anyone else do this?

9 thoughts on “‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

    • It’s typical Toibin fare, so I’m sure you’d like this, Susan. There were a lot of stories here that kind of felt familiar, maybe because they echo stories in his novels, especially ‘Nora Webster’ and ‘The South’

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2020 recap – Reading Matters

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