20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Spain

‘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?

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2015.

Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South, is a luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. It’s also a beautifully structured story about history and memory, violence and trauma.

It was first published in 1990 but was reissued by Picador a few years ago as part of its new Picador Classics range (which boasts books by John Banville, Alice Sebold and Tim Winton, among others — if you are interested, the range is here.)

In the introduction to this edition, Roy Foster says it “announced the arrival of a new novelist with a new style — economical, lapidary, incantatory — and a new kind of Irish novel”. It seems strange to think of it like that now, because this is the kind of style I associate with most of the Irish novels I read, but as Foster points out, 25 years ago, this was radically different to Irish fiction of the time, which was largely associated with “short stories in the Chekhovian mode”.

In search of a new life

The protagonist in The South is Katherine Proctor, an upperclass Protestant woman, who flees her County Wexford home, abandoning her (controlling) husband and 10-year-old son, in pursuit of a new life in Spain. (In that sense, the South of the title refers to both the Irish Republic and Catalonia.)

A talented painter, Katherine hankers for a different way of life, free from the constraints of marriage, motherhood and the shadows of her Irish past, and moves to Spain — first to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, then to the mountains of Catalonia — to begin afresh and to focus on her first love: art.

When the book begins, it is 24 October 1950, and Katherine is in Barcelona living in a hotel run by a “fat woman” and “her little mouse of a husband”. She doesn’t understand the language and is feeling isolated, scared and paranoid.

It is difficult for me being on my own and it has been since I left. In the street sometimes I think I am being followed. I try not to move too far away from the hotel. The journey, here, however has been the worst so far. There are men everywhere watching you. I came in from France to San Sebastian and stayed there in a small hotel looking over the beach and the calm sea. I was lonely there. I felt bad. In he greyness of the city everything was closed. The streets were deserted every afternoon. […] I took the night train to Barcelona. […] The moment I awoke I knew someone was in the compartment. The train was moving fast. It was still dark so I could see nothing. I stayed still and tried to keep breathing as though I were asleep.

Though Katherine manages to escape the man who tried to rape her on the train, she’s scarred by the experience. She’s uneasy in the company of men, but when she meets Miguel, an art teacher, she falls in love and the pair move to a small village in the mountains to paint and live a stripped-back (read squalid) but happy existence.

In this isolated but beautiful place Katherine discovers personal freedom with a man who respects her, but she begins to realise that she cannot truly escape her own roots. For in hearing about Miguel’s tortured past in the Spanish Civil War, she comes to understand her own traumas — abandoned by her mother, the family home burnt out by Irish Republicans — from an earlier life.

And while she would like nothing better than to ignore memories of her homeland she cannot because one of Miguel’s friends, Michael Graves, is an ex-patriate Irishman, who serves as a constant reminder of what she left behind.

Written in economical but elegant prose, The South is an effortless read, so effortless it almost feels weightless. And yet this book deals with big themes — themes which often recur in Tóibín’s later work. These include childhood abandonment, the sometimes troubled relationships between mothers and their sons, and the sense of dislocation that travel or immigration can bring when you are cut off from your place of birth.

A circular story

In this novel, Katherine does, eventually, return to the family home at Enniscorthy to try to re-establish a connection with her now grown son. It is a bittersweet experience.

It is a revelation to see how Tóibín manages to encapsulate all the little hurts and the interior struggles of both characters without resorting to over-the-top dramatics. It is that restraint which lends the book its power to move the reader, because we know — or can at least imagine — all the horrible things, all the pain and hurt, that each person is keeping hidden from the other.

The cool detachment of the prose is anything but.

Similarly, while the writing style is sparse, Tóibín describes things with a painterly eye — it is a very visual novel, one that describes landscapes, whether of the Spanish mountains, the Wexford countryside or inner-city Dublin, and the feelings they evoke, through the eyes of an artist:

Fog seeped everywhere in January. In the little warren of houses around Oxmanstown Road where she moved when she returned to Ireland, the smoke from the chimneys didn’t lift, it hung heavy in the air all day. There was ice on the footpaths in the morning; there was a damp and bitter cold. 

If you haven’t guess already, I adored The South. Reading it was an exquisite experience. It’s such a beautiful, heart-felt story and reading it back-to-back with Tóibín’s non-fiction book Homage to Barcelona, written at about the same time, made the experience even richer.

It also helped that it tapped into my (emerging) interest in the Spanish Civil War and allowed me to draw parallels with it and the fight for Irish independence. I also loved the references to art and the “creative struggle” — and I’ve come to realise there’s no other (living) male writer that can write women as well as Tóibín, he really knows what makes us tick.

Five stars.

This is my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy only recently but when I was sorting through a bunch of Irish novels stored in my wardrobe (who needs clothes?) I discovered an older edition, published in 2001, which had been sitting there unread for at least a decade! That means it qualifies for my TBR project, which includes anything in my possession prior to 31 December 2018.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

Nora-Webster

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 385 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, would be right up my street.

I enjoyed his 1992 novel The Heather Blazing, when I read it more than 20 years ago, as well as more recent forays into his work, specifically The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn (both reviewed on this blog), and I have been saving up some of his others for “comfort reads” — because, to be frank, that’s how I view his writing: it’s often unbearably sad and melancholic but I find his lyrical style, its form and rhythm, quite comforting. And yet, when I read Nora Webster, I didn’t find it particularly comforting at all… I found it, well, let me be frank once again, kind of lacking. Let me explain.

A woman’s grief

The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford (Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy to be precise) in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.

Early on in the novel there are two pivotal moments: the first is the realisation that Nora is broke and must return to work, something she hasn’t done since becoming a mother; and the second is her inability to see the harm she might have caused her two boys when she placed them in the care of an aunt while her husband was ill in hospital — during that time she never once visited them or let them see their father.

Now, bereft and grieving, she realises she must get on with life without her husband by her side. Her return to part-time work is fraught with difficulties — mainly in the form of a bitchy boss, whose antics are so over-the-top as to be cartoonish — and she’s constantly worried about her eldest son who seems to have developed a stutter, but there is hope and redemption too, mainly in the form of music, when Nora rediscovers her ability to sing. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of last year’s Giller short-listed novel Tell by Frances Itani, in which music and song serves to sooth the loneliness of a woman grappling with the return of her husband crippled during the Great War.)

Character-driven narrative

There’s not much of a plot in this book — it basically follows Nora getting on with her new life as a widow and raising her two now-fatherless sons as best she can over the course of several years. It’s largely character driven. Typically, the characters — Nora, her children, her siblings and their families, her work colleagues, new friends and the local nuns — are beautifully drawn, and Tóibín builds up a realistic portrait of a close-knit community at a time when life (and gossip) was so much simpler than it is now.

Indeed, Toibin is at his best when he focuses on the minutiae of Nora’s daily life — the housework, her job, the care of her sons, her singing practice — and the sense of community that surrounds, and occasionally smothers, her: this is a woman who wants to grieve alone but Irish village life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, refuses to let her do so.

It’s a slow, gentle read, and a moving portrait of one woman’s grief, but I kept wondering whether the narrative was going to build to any particular climax (it doesn’t). I felt as if the story was plodding along, going nowhere and I occasionally grew bored — I hate to say it, but even Tóibín’s lovely lyrical voice wasn’t enough to sustain me on the journey.

That said, I do need to issue two caveats. First, I read Nora Webster immediately in the wake of Mary Costello’s extraordinarily powerful debut novel, Academy Street, which meant it paled by comparison. And second, I did not realise the book was based on Tóibín’s own mother until I watched the BBC documentary Colm Toibin: His Mother’s Son just days after finishing it. I think having this knowledge in mind while reading the book would have certainly made me more sympathetic to the novel’s aims: to explore why Nora Webster — flawed and fragile — behaved in the ways she did during her husband’s illness and afterwards…

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, historical fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn

Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2009.

As long time readers of this blog will know, I have a soft spot for Irish fiction, so it was no great surprise that Colm Tóibín‘s Brooklyn would be my type of book. But what I did find surprising was just how much I liked it. I devoured it in just two sittings this past weekend.

An Irishwoman abroad

The book opens in poor, provincial 1950s Ireland — Enniscorthy, County Wexford to be precise.

Eilis Lacey, a part-time shop girl, leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. She lives in an all-girl boarding house, presided over by the matron-like Mrs Kehoe, and spends her days working in a local department store and her evenings studying for a book-keeping qualification at Brooklyn College.

Along the way she makes several friends, meets a boy and finds herself living a relatively contented life, despite the fact that she still misses her family back home.

I’m not sure I can really say anything else without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I shall keep schutm, suffice to say this is a quietly devastating read, one in which it is completely possible to lose all track of time as you get lost in the world presented here.

A paean to homesickness

Brooklyn is a gentle read, but its gentleness should not be mistaken for shallowness. It might be set in the 1950s but it touches on universal themes that resonate today, and I’ve yet to read anything that so perfectly captures the profound sense of dislocation you feel when you swap one country for another and then return to your homeland for the first time.

In short, Brooklyn is a superb paean to homesickness and the émigré experience. I think I identified with it so strongly because it shows, in an understated but powerful manner, how all emigrants have to make that god-awful decision about whether to stay or go, a decision that paralysed me for years.

When Eilis is confronted with this choice she is tormented because there is no single right answer: whatever she chooses will have both negative and positive repercussions for herself and her loved ones.

Proactive, not passive

And while I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews of this book, fearful that it will put me off reading it, I’m conscious Brooklyn has drawn criticism from some quarters over Eilis’s passive nature, yet I did not see her that way at all. Sure, her move to Brooklyn is organised by others, namely Father Flood and Rose, but she recognises this as an opportunity for which she should be grateful, even if she finds the prospect of leaving all she knows behind a daunting one. She’s proactive enough to get herself educated while in Brooklyn, because she recognises this as another opportunity to better herself in ways which would not be possible “back home”.

The truly lovely thing about Eilis is that she is a good person, and she thereby attracts good people and many acts of kindness come her way, but her good manners and her unwillingness to rock the boat should not be mistaken for passivity.

Brooklyn deserves a wide readership: it’s a powerful story about culture shock and the life-changing decisions we all must make as we grow up and forge our own paths. I rather suspect it’s going to be one of those books that will stay with me a long time…