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The Empty Family: Stories [Paperback]

Colm Tóibín
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Jun 2011

In the captivating stories that make up The Empty Family Colm Tóibín delineates with a tender and unique sensibility lives of unspoken or unconscious longing, of individuals, often willingly, cast adrift from their history.

'I imagined lamplight, shadows, soft voices, clothes put away, the low sound of late news on the radio. And I thought as I crossed the bridge at Baggot Street to face the last stretch of my own journey home that no matter what I had done, I had not done that.'

From the young Pakistani immigrant who seeks some kind of permanence in a strange town to the Irish woman reluctantly returning to Dublin and discovering a city that refuses to acknowledge her long absence each of Tóibín's stories manage to contain whole worlds: stories of fleeing the past and returning home, of family threads lost and ultimately regained.

'Exquisite . . . The chief reason to read these stories is the peculiar power of Colm Tóibín's prose' Telegraph

'Astonishingly precise, depicting complex and conflicted states of mind with rare clarity' Observer

'Beautifully observed' Sunday Times

Colm Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955. He is the author of five other novels, including Brooklyn, The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a collection of stories, Mothers and Sons.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (30 Jun 2011)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0141041773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141041773
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 240,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Colm Tóibín's new collection is the work of an author at the peak of his writing powers (The Times)

Always deeply moving, the stories here - like the surf-washed pebbles on that Wexford beach - will be read for meaning and enjoyed for their shape and sound for ages to come (Tribune)

It's a collection that will only further fuel Tóibín's ascent through English fiction (Independent on Sunday)

Exquisite . . . The chief reason to read these stories is the peculiar power of Colm Tóibín's prose (Telegraph)

Astonishingly precise, depicting complex and conflicted states of mind with rare clarity (Observer)

Beautifully observed (Sunday Times)

Tóibín's deceptively straightforward style continues to manage somehow to encompass both lucidity and ambiguity, precision and poetry (Irish Times)

Exquisite (Metro, Fiction of the Week)

These stories are always intensely interesting and sometimes profoundly provocative (Irish Independent)

Perfect; and as good as the best of William Trevor, than which there can be no higher praise (Scotsman)

About the Author

Colm Tóibín was born in Ireland in 1955. He is the author of five other novels, including The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and a collection of stories, Mothers and Sons.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing collection 30 Mar 2012
I read Colm Toíbín (CT)'s collection of short stories and another by Annie Proulx (AP) in the same week. Both are much decorated writers with novels like "Brooklyn" (CT) and "The Shipping News"(AP) to their name. But enjoying their short stories is something else. I loved AP's, whose focus in novels and stories alike, is on poor people in cold US states trying to make a living with their hands, against all odds, in farming, ranching, fishing, any other manual job. AP is a keen researcher who creates instant atmosphere, plottting well, writing good dialogues.
CT's story collection lacks her passion and most of the other ingredients. His collection is beautifully written. Some of his stories are endearing, eg the opening story about his poor youth and another about the slow demise of an aunt. But in other stories the hero is a self-centered person, like the 77.5- year old Irish filmset designer confronting the successor of her only love in life in Wicklow, Ireland. Or the girl returning to her Spanish family after nine years of political exile in the UK.
CT's stories about his coming out and practicing same-sex love are mostly cold and cynical. The much lamented NL-author Gerard Reve sometimes wrote 17 drafts before submitting stories or books celebrating his orientation. Early in his career, he shocked the nation by adding religious and philosophical dimensions to his carnal desires, but from the 1970s his novels sold well, because he described the desire graphically, not the act.
In "The Empty Family", CT did none of the above. His gay orientation is described only once warmly, in other stories in a crude, cold fashion. Even in terms of writing about gay lifestyles, CT is trumped by AP's story "Two Cowboys", later published as "Brokeback Mountain" and made into a movie. This reader gradually lost interest in this collection full of self love, without clear focus or passion.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars couldn't put it down 5 Dec 2011
Beautifully written. I couldn't put it down. I bought this book when I was delayed at Dublin airport and the time just flew by as I was so engrossed in it. I enjoyed 'Brooklyn' and this book is equally as good. Highly recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful storyteller, but... 31 Dec 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Of course Tóibín is a wonderful storyteller and I was hooked by all the tales in this book, but personally I could have done without some of the graphic intimate details, but I guess I'm just too squeamish!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Poetic and moving 5 Mar 2013
By Greg
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A book full of alienated and alienating characters. Are they alone through choice or accident of place? The ambivalence is part of the fun of the book. Beautifully written as always and deeply thought-provoking from the point of view of an Irish emigrant.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  34 reviews
90 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All the Lonely People 4 Jan 2011
By Charlus - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The nine elegiac stories that make up this exquisite collection feature characters united in their solitude, isolated souls reflecting on their lives and wounds. What unites the stories themselves is the sculpted beauty of Mr. Toibin's prose. Loss and longing are the emotional undercurrents, whether that of an adulterous affair, a gay love story in a repressive society, or the pain of a love affair that reached the end of its natural life but keeps up an afterlife unknown even to its protagonists. Ireland is the home that his characters (try to) escape from or are pulled back to, willingly and not. Other stories are voiced like love letters to the anonymous "you".

Here is one writer who goes from strength to strength; he seems to just get better with each successive work. While the stories may vary in how satisfying one finds each of the narratives, Toibin's precise ability to catch the ebb and flow of his characters thoughts and emotions remains thrillingly constant. A collection worthy of the author of "The Master" and "Brooklyn".
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Colour of Shadows 19 Jan 2011
By Anne Colamosca - Published on
"When he went upstairs and looked at his old bedroom, he noticed how worn the carpet was, and how the color on the wallpaper had faded. He must, he thought, have noticed this before, but now the room seemed shabby and strange, almost unfamiliar, and not the room he had slept in every night throughout his childhood, with the small desk in the corner where he did his homework."

The Colour of Shadows is my favorite story in this amazing collection of short stories by Irish witer Colm Toibin. As has been written about Toibin before, he is at his most authentic when he is writing about the people and places of Ireland.

This story is heartbreakingly simple: Paul, a gay man, living in Dublin quietly takes over the care of his dying aunt Josie who has raised him. The two are very close (at some level) and have great respect and tenderness for one another. Yet there is one utterance from Josie --near death -- mistaking Paul for a family friend, that momentarily shatters their relationship. Yet the strength of this piece is its simplicity, its quiet style and honest description of the town, the neighbors and his aunt. It never turns into overwrought, confrontational dialogue. The narrator simply tells the tale of deep love marred by the inability of Josie,an otherwise giving and generous person, to understand Paul's homosexuality because of her age and her own upbringing. It is painful, but Paul understands, at some level, that she nevertheless loved him, and took great care of him as a child.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary and Emotional Stories 21 Jan 2011
By Bookreporter - Published on
The nine stories in Colm Tóibín's THE EMPTY FAMILY are set in such locations as Ireland, Spain and the U.S. Their time frames range from 19th-century England to the 1970s through the present day. Though disparate in several ways, these offerings share certain elements. They reflect themes of life, loss and solitude, but more importantly, beautiful writing that tugs at the heart of the reader in ways that words simply cannot describe.

The Irish-born Tóibín is the author of six novels, including THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP, THE MASTER (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and BROOKLYN (winner of the Costa Book Award). He has taught at Stanford, the University of Texas, and Princeton. Whether the setting is Spain, Ireland or the U.S., Tóibín's writing shows a remarkable recognition of history and locale. Reading "One Minus One," he describes a time period when he taught in New York City as "the city was about to enter its last year of innocence." By that brief descriptive passage, Tóibín does far more than establish time. Through the power of literary economy, he describes a moment in history we will never forget.

The title story of the collection is set in California, a coastal locale the narrator treats as a substitute for his Irish homeland. "The Empty Family" reminds us of family, death and home. The narrator understands that home is more than a place; it's life, a combination of experience, objects and family. One can never leave home and family.

Frances Rossiter is the main character in "Two Women." A respected film set designer "almost precisely between seventy-five and eighty," she comes back to Dublin for a movie assignment. Her return brings memories of a long-ago love affair. By chance she meets the widow of her lover and comes to understand how both of them were a part of his life, each offering him a part of their lives that the other could not. Through those two distinct contributions, they helped make his life complete. It's a poignant and enlightening meeting.

"One Minus One" is another story of loss and displacement. It finds the narrator living in Texas, thinking of his mother on the anniversary of her death. Six years ago, he returned to Ireland for her funeral. Recounting the details through thoughts of his ex-lover and the loss of that relationship, he recalls all he has lost. Tóibín is a man who has travelled around the globe, but clearly part of him has never left Ireland.

The longest contribution to THE EMPTY FAMILY is "The Street," a novella set in Barcelona. The story focuses on Pakistini immigrants who are exploited and controlled and their struggle to live in post-Franco Spain. Two of the inhabitants of an immigrant house, Malik and Abdul, eventually fall in love. Their relationship is uncovered, and they suffer the consequences of ostracism. Somehow they persevere because, as Abdul eventually says to Malik, "My real family is you."

The stories here contain a certain autobiographical element, reflecting the issues inherent in the modern post-1950s generation. The common themes of regret and longing may make the book difficult to read without great emotion. Still, the extraordinary tone set by this beautiful writing makes THE EMPTY FAMILY a wonderful collection.

--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Falls a little short of the Toibim standard 6 Sep 2011
By P. J. Owen - Published on
The Empty Family is the latest collection of stories from one of the better fiction writers today, Colm Toibim. Toibim writes in a sometimes dry and clinical fashion, but with this sparse and elegant prose he is somehow able to pull the deepest emotions from his characters, to show them at their most vulnerable and human, even as they fight to mask it. His most recent works, Brooklyn, and his last story collection, Mothers and Sons, were both masterful works.

The Empty Family though falls a little short of its predecessors.

There are some memorable stories here. The opener, `Silence', is a brilliant historical piece about one Lady Gregory, widowed by an elderly husband and abandoned by her true love, who at a dinner party reveals her secret pain to the novelist Henry James as an idea a for a novel. In `Two Women', a rude and domineering set designer is humbled in a surprise encounter with a former rival. `The New Spain' shows us an exile who comes home to post-Franco Spain to find a country, and a family, she doesn't recognize. These first two especially show Toibim's mastery of hidden pain. The last delves into loneliness, also a recurrent theme here.

But there are a few duds this time around. `The Empty Family' requires another reading to decipher, if one would only want to. `Barcelona, 1975' seems to be primarily about sex. (And this is something to be aware of if you haven't read Mothers and Sons: Toibim sometimes likes to get graphic.)

Still, though it's not perfect, Toibim is always worthwhile. But If you haven't read him before, I would start with one of his earlier works, like The Master, Brooklyn, or Mothers and Sons.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unprepared for Toibin 3 April 2011
By Dawn Killen-Courtney - Published on
I've never read a word by Colm Toibin before this amazing collection, but you can believe I will read many more words of his. He is one of the excellent ones, the ones who, though they are shaping tales with the same language we use daily, are somehow putting a different shine on it, making "mere" language more than itself, making art that moves us. I haven't encountered that to such a degree since I read Henry Roth's _Call It Sleep_.

I was most connected to the stories of family, of the loss of the older generation, the way it feels after they are gone.In these stories I kept finding a piece of myself here, and a piece there, and parts of the unwritten,unspoken thoughts that go on in the back of my mind, that I am barely conscious of. We know, we know, we feel we do not say.

He conveyes so much emotion with what he is holding back, I don't know how he does it, but I know that this is great art, superb writing. It makes me feel, not just skim words across my brain. He connects the human condition through its isolation. Just a great find. I highly recommend this collection.
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