Sunday 24 September 2017

Review: The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

Viking, €21.05

Ronan Farren

THE theme of women under various kinds of stress -- some coping, some succumbing to events -- ran through Colm Toibin's first story collection Mothers and Sons in 2006.

Now, in The Empty Family, alienation, exile and return home -- often reluctant -- are the preoccupations.

In The New Spain, set a few years after the death of Franco, a young woman forced out of her country years earlier because of her communist affiliations returns from London and confronts her still unsympathetic parents.

The woman, Carme, arrives in Barcelona without advance notice to her family, and stands alone in a central square wondering what to do: "The heaviness, the murkiness in the air, the fetid smell from the drains, made her understand that, whether she liked it or not, she was home."

Carme, who views the world, and post-Franco Spain, dispassionately, is convincing precisely because Toibin avoids sentimentality or partisanship in his portrayal. It would have been easy to make her a standard, idealistic heroine, but she is rather abrasive (her father is referred to as "the old fool") and self-centred. In the end, in the holiday house Carme has inherited from her grandmother, her mother reinforces the estrangement by putting a chain and padlock around the fridge before departing. Carme is able to laugh at this petty act, and at the end she feels "a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would ever come her way".

This is a story full of surprises; complex, wry, and, above all, quietly understated.

In Two Women, Frances, in her 70s, arrives in Dublin from Los Angeles to work on a film (she's a set decorator) and resolves this will be her last visit to the city she grew up in, reflecting on the drive from the airport that "she was travelling through alien territory, low, miserable and grim".

Before starting work on the film, she visits the National Gallery, bearing her distaste for the city with her, viewing the 18th- and 19th-Century paintings -- "stock scenes of bucolic happiness and figures standing near waterfalls" -- with gloomy displeasure. She is arrested by the rooms with works by Irish painters, trying to paint like French painters: "All of these artists, she thought, must have left here to get away from the dreary low skies, the dingy city, the bleak landscape, faces locked in northern misery."

She is bossy, acerbic, uninterested in politeness, an efficient machine, meticulous in her work. She is not totally joyless or without warmth. We learn of her long relationship with an actor, now dead; of her plan to leave her large house in LA to the South American couple who look after her. In the end, a fortuitous meeting with another woman is a catalyst, a link to events in both their pasts. It's a story of loss and loneliness, and of the implacable dreariness of growing old, told with originality and perception.

In One Minus One, brothers aged eight and four are exiled by their mother for some months to their aunt's house, where nobody listens to them or smiles at them. There was no drama, but: "It was all greyness, strangeness. Our aunt dealt with us in her own distracted way ... It seems as though Cathal and I spent that time in the shadow world ... everything familiar missing, and nothing we did or said could change this."

Now, in middle age, the narrator -- planning his return home from America as his mother nears death -- remembers, and the story catches the quiet acceptance of children who don't question the actions of adults. In the hospital, he is full of complicated regrets, recalling his mother's remoteness to him, her closeness to her other son. He knows there are no second chances and realises that this comes as a relief.

In Silence, Toibin takes the bones of a true story and builds it into perhaps the most engaging piece of the collection. It is well known that Lady Gregory, playwright and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, had a brief sexual liaison with a minor poet named Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (so minor that the standard literary reference books ignore him), some time in the 1880s.

What may not be as well known (certainly, it was not to the reviewer) is that, burdened, or excited, by the secret affair (she was married to Sir William Gregory, 35 years her senior, at the time), she related a heavily disguised version to Henry James, who noted the gist of the story in his notebooks in 1894.

It's amusing to wander outside the confines of Toibin's story and discover something of Blunt's life. He was, it seems, an adulterer on a grand scale. His long-suffering wife finally tired of it all and sought a divorce when he moved one of his mistresses into the family home. There was lots of nasty squabbling over property and valuable horses, after which the minor poet seems to have sunk from view. Of course, Lady Gregory's musings are all Toibin's, the most important element in this sophisticated and witty story.

Of the other pieces, The Pearl Fishers is driven by strongly realised characters and beautifully plotted. And The Colour of Shadows is a melancholy and affecting tale of family sorrow.

Sunday Independent

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