Skip to main content
review: short fiction

Colm Tóibín's most evident characteristic is his quiet and meticulous narrative voice. It does not change much from story to story or protagonist to protagonist, perhaps because it is so perfectly thoughtful, so perfectly confident. It is not Tóibín's purpose to amaze or shock the reader, but to convince her, and moment by moment, the reader cannot help but to be convinced - each character makes such perfect sense, each revelation, no matter how surprising, fits so well into the framework of previous revelations.

In The Empty Family, a perfect example of this style of story writing is Two Women, the tale of Frances Rossiter, a Hollywood set dresser, 77, born in Ireland and happily transplanted to Hollywood, where she has entirely scoured from her life all inconvenient and disorderly human connections. She returns to Ireland to set up an ambitious film about to be directed by a younger compatriot she views only through a jaded, professional lens. She is brusque. She knows what she is doing. She has seen it all. As the story progresses, Tóibín uses his voice to make the reader intimate with a woman who rejects intimacy. Frances is more unusual than the tale she has to tell (abandoned love), but her tale is no less interesting for that, since because Frances cannot be surprised, she must be surprised, and she is.

But Tóibín likes difficult characters. In The Pearl Fishers, the difficult character is the narrator himself, who can't help being openly rude to friends he has known since childhood, Grainne and Donnacha Roche. When he first agrees to meet with them, the reader knows that while Grainne thinks he is teasingly hostile toward her, he is actually expressing long-standing antipathy and, it turns out, a bit of jealousy too, since Donnacha and the narrator had been lovers in adolescence, and passionate ones at that.

The spine of the story is not the narrator's revelation but Grainne's. She has written a book and she wants the narrator to allow her to reprint a embarrassing poem he wrote at the age of 16, when he was going through a religious phase. In a world of secrets suddenly being revealed, the narrator comes to understand by the end of the story that his job is to keep his. Tóibín's tone is so quiet and interiorized that we even believe that the narrator is doing what he has been told to do as we are reading his story (first published in The Dublin Review).

The longest and most daring of these stories is The Street. Tóibín's protagonist is Malik, a Pakistani immigrant in Barcelona, probably in his late teens, who is so inexperienced at the beginning of the story that he has never left the street where his sponsor has deposited him. He sleeps in a room with other guest workers, and manages to make a few friends, even though his boss considers him worthless.

Tóibín goes as deeply into Malik as he does into his Irish characters, convincingly depicting Malik's ignorance and isolation. The men he knows and depends upon cannot be understood - not only are their surfaces impervious, Malik has no language for imagining their inner lives. And then he learns a few things, and not gently. I don't know when I have seen the progress from ignorance to empathy so precisely and convincingly depicted as it is in this story.

Tóibín's characters live by default in isolation. Much of the time, when given a choice between isolation and connection, independence and love, Hollywood and Dublin, they choose solitude. That reader's acceptance of the necessity of this sombre choice is the result of Tóibín's exquisite deployment of information; he lays his cards on the table one by one at irregular intervals. Sometimes there is an ace or a king - a piece of information especially dramatic or explicit - but he produces these as quietly as all the others.

The result is utter trustworthiness, even when Tóibín is doing something not quite believable, such as exploring the inner life of a teen-aged Muslim in Barcelona or the sensibility of the historic writer and patron of the arts, Lady Gregory. The Empty Family is a fine collection, both a representative display of Colm Tóibín's literary mastery and an insightful exploration of the world we all live in.

Jane Smiley is the author of Private Life and many other novels and works of non-fiction. Her most recent book is The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer.