Customer Review

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Songs of Lost Innocence, May 17, 2012
This review is from: The Empty Family: Stories (Hardcover)
Silence, the first story in this collection by Colm Tóibín, is different from the others, being set in the 1880s and telling of Lady Gregory's love affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt -- this long before her creative association with Yeats. The theme of a remembered love affair, however, crops up in several of the other stories, all of which are contemporary or set in Tóibín's lifetime; many of them have a strongly autobiographical air.

The title story, The Empty Family, captures one of the major themes in the book: return and loss. A writer or academic returns to his home overlooking the sea near Wexford. The people he knew there have moved on with their lives, leaving him somehow incomplete. But he is writing to someone unidentified, perhaps a former lover, who is also connected with these people. The ambiguities make this brief story one of the most effective of all, but they are not all this oblique.

The theme is echoed in two other stories, One Minus One, about another writer returning from America to be at the death-bed of his mother, and The Colour of Shadows, in which a busy Dubliner drives down to Enniscorthy (near Wexford, and one of the settings of Tóibín's BROOKLYN) to put his elderly aunt into a home. The theme of an absent or deserting mother overshadows both stories, in a way that gives them a bitter twist, but is not fully resolved.

Return is also the theme of two of the more vigorous and colorful stories. In Two Women, a Hollywood set designer, an elderly tyrant, comes to do a film in Ireland, only to be tormented by memories of her long affair with a celebrated Irish actor. In The New Spain, an even more interesting story, a young Catalan woman, exiled in London for a decade because of her opposition to Franco, returns to the family house on Menorca to claim her inheritance. And when she sees how things have changed, she is feisty enough to do something about it.

These two are the only stories in which the romances are specifically heterosexual. Most of the others have a gay theme somewhere in the background, and in the two other stories set in Catalunya -- Barcelona 1975 and The Street -- as also in The Pearl Fishers -- the gay sex is very explicit indeed. This is not the Colm Tóibín who dealt so discreetly with Henry James' sexuality in THE MASTER; it is the most anatomically specific gay writing I have ever read, and may not be for everyone. And yet, and yet: The Street, the longest story in the book, also paints an intricate picture of a sub-community of indentured workers imported to Barcelona from Pakistan, and the other two stories have the searing honesty of autobiographical truth.

I can respect honesty; I can admire discretion; I just wish that Colm Tóibín could find a single consistent voice, rather than appearing a different writer in each book. I had originally posted this review as five stars; after reflection, I have edged it down.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 17, 2012 8:23:59 PM PDT
Roger--oh, thank you for this review! Yes, it has been three years since I read BROOKLYN, but, reading your review about return and loss does bring me right back inside the poignant moments of the novel (more novella than novel). Very interesting about the gay sex being the most explicit you've ever read! I mean, his writing is SO restrained in BROOKLYN, so subtle, that I can't imagine it. I still haven't read LINE OF BEAUTY (on my tbr), but is it more explicit than that? I know, different authors, but...Well, what a surprise. I am actually glad to know that Toibin can do the balls to the wall writing! (yes, pun intended!) Bug

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2012 4:43:35 AM PDT
Thank you, Bug! The best parts of this are very good indeed. I thought of THE LINE OF BEAUTY too; Tóibín's writing is comparable, but let's just say he takes it more slowly. It is interesting that you call BROOKLYN more of a novella, really. As I recall, it is well over 200 pages, but... it does have the feel of a perfect miniature. Roger.

Posted on May 18, 2012 7:48:42 AM PDT
Roger, I have read very little by Toibin (without accents) and wouldn't probably continue with this story collection. I didn't read THE MASTER, given I knew very little about James at the time, nor was I that interested in the books that I had read. This has changed a bit thanks to some amazon book friends. Your review is very helpful to decide where on the pile of books this would go. Friederike

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2012 4:25:10 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 18, 2012 4:26:15 PM PDT
I really don't know, Friederike. I have read only the three Toibin books I mention here, and as far as I'm concerned, the real author is in hiding.

I am not sure that his publishers know how to market him either. The cover of the paperback I have shows the naked shoulders of two women in ball gowns and a man somewhere in the background. The blurb on the back summarizes each of the three heterosexual stories fairly fully, then makes an oblique reference to the sexuality in a fourth. Neither front nor back cover gives any indication that six of the nine stories have gay themes, in some cases almost pornographically so. Roger.

Posted on May 18, 2012 7:32:15 PM PDT
LillyandGish says:
I read this book, mostly because Toibin was described by several professional reviewers as "the heir to William Trevor." It didn't seem that way to me. I thought the two authors were quite different in many ways, though both are master writers. I read THE MASTER, and I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but I can't remember much about it now. I did like THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP more than this book or THE MASTER, but the three books are so different, it seems unfair to compare them, really. Best, Lilly

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2012 8:07:55 PM PDT
Lilly, nice that you mention BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP. I read it a while ago and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Friederike

In reply to an earlier post on May 18, 2012 8:22:47 PM PDT
Lilly, I thought of you, yes, when I came upon that Trevor reference. You can see certain points of similarity, but they are not close. And I rather think Toibin is too old to be the heir to anything.

Your saying that the three books you read are so different backs up mypoint to Friederike. I want to shout "Would the real Colm Toibin please stand up?"! Roger.

Posted on May 20, 2012 6:48:17 AM PDT
H. Schneider says:
I read only the circumspect Master (which contributed to my starting a long personal expedition into Jamesland), and never his explicit other texts. I may have to.
Genius is a strong word! H

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2012 7:20:00 AM PDT
Thank you, H, for your two recent comments. FK took me to task over "genius" also. I am often tempted into the snappy final sentence, but may have to revise it. Roger.
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