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Review: The Empty Family by Colm Toibin

In this collection of short stories the settings divide, roughly, in two: there's abroad (New York, London, Barcelona) and there's home (Wexford and Dublin). But even Dublin can be a foreign place. In The Colour of Shadows, for instance, a man called Paul takes care of the aunt who took care of him when he was a boy. As she dies in a Wexford nursing home she thinks he is someone else: "'Oh Paul,' she said sadly. 'Paul got involved with a rotten crowd up in Dublin . . . A rotten crowd!'"

The rottenness is homosexuality.

The following story, Barcelona, 1975, describes in graphic detail a young Irishman engaging, actively and passively, in sodomy. One can't help thinking that the sequencing of the stories is deliberate: what the much-loved aunt sees as rotten is seen as fresh, liberating, good. And yet her own undoubted goodness, especially her "tact and decorum", is exemplary. Such conflicts between tradition and change animate Toibin's radical but naturally conservative intelligence.

The sexual frankness (which required considerable writerly courage) seems intended to shock the Irish liberal consensus. Sex without commitment, orgiastic promiscuity, intimacy that is close to brutality -- isn't such transgressive behaviour uncaring, in bad taste and therefore shameful? Shame is, one way or another, the sub-text of all the stories.

The defeat of shame by departure for more tolerant or more anonymous cities is the first victory of most of Toibin's central characters. As a consequence, the drama of a story generally involves a return to the scene of the original sin and reviewing it from the changed, unrepressed perspective.

These reviews can be bitingly sarcastic. In The New Spain, for example, a Catalan Leftist called Carme returns to Menorca some years after the death of Franco. Carme's father has been busy destroying the island in the name of tourism, and her mother is a domestic despot -- she locks the fridge with a chain to prevent Carme getting food.

But then Carme is herself a monster: materialistic, aggressive, self-centred, untactful, indecorous. Sex, again, is at the bottom of it: she picks up a man and takes him home where he smokes dope and, following her lead, kicks a dent in the fridge.

If one wonders why Carme is a woman -- she would probably be more plausible, though less fascinating, as a gay man -- that is partly because Toibin is increasingly drawn towards depicting the lives of women, particularly women aging into loneliness. This is exemplified here by a story about Lady Gregory and her affair with the swashbuckling Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Repressed by respectability, fearful that her husband will divorce her and she will lose her son, Gregory nonetheless risks safety for joy.

Unlike the other naturalistic stories, this one is based on a literary conceit. Toibin picks up a scandal the novelist Henry James was told by Lady Gregory and suggests she did it to see how 'The Master' would tell the story of her affair with Blunt. The conceit is at once brilliantly accomplished and revealing about the erotic attractions of secrecy in any kind of sexual disobedience.

Secrets and the need to tell them, the conflict between public and private, and the necessary solitude of a gay man -- all these themes come together in The Pearl Fishers. The man, a writer not unlike Toibin himself, meets a couple he knew in Wexford when they were young. The wife, Grainne, is a newspaper columnist and a committed Catholic; her husband, Donnacha, is a health worker. In a memoir she's writing, Grainne wants to reveal that a priest they all admired, Patrick Moorehouse, abused her as a teenager. Donnacha, in turn, doesn't want Grainne to know about the sex he and the writer had together.

This hypocritical, vengeful and all-too-believable comedy is worked out at a dinner in the Clarence Hotel, which is interrupted by another God-mad columnist, the author of Reading the Bible with Bono -- any resemblance to anyone, living or dead, must be entirely coincidental, surely?

Having put down the Bono disciple by asking him, "What is the current thinking on wankers?", the writer refuses to allow Grainne to quote an embarrassingly religious poem he wrote in Wexford and walks home alone.

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As he thinks of Donnacha and Grainne settling down for the night in Terenure and of his own "nest of attic rooms", he consoles himself with the thought that he would not exchange any part of his sometimes grim solitude "for the easy rituals of mutuality and closeness that Grainne and Donnacha were performing now". Marriage, straight or gay, is problematic.

Toibin's journalism has, over the years, grown increasingly fluent, expansive and self-confident. Self-confidence has increased in his creative writing too, but the style has gone in a contrary direction. What opens out in his journalism is reversed in the fiction; the fluency contracts; the expansiveness becomes spare. Not a few readers of Brooklyn, his last novel, got lost in the plains and low hills of this new prose.

But at his best, Toibin is an artist of the unnoticed, a master of the mundane. These stories are always intensely interesting and sometimes profoundly provocative.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet.

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