Top positive review
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A fine collection of short stories with much to hold the reader's interest
on 2 December 2010
I often find short-story collections disappointing, mainly because so many writers try to create impact by giving their work an unwarranted novelty or quirkiness. In Ireland at least however, there is a long tradition of short story writing which tends towards the calm and reflective, providing illuminating windows on to life with far greater integrity than those writers who wish to surprise their readers with their cleverness. Ann Enright's new collection for Granta Books, Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, is full of such, including writers like John McGahern, William Trevor and the author of the subject of this review of The Empty Family, Colm Toíbín.
The stories in The Empty Family are definitely in the Irish tradition of short stories. Each one can be seen as an episode in someone's life, and often they seem like extracts from a longer work, although this is not to say that they do are not complete in themselves. Toíbín manages to drop the reader into the narrative of each story with little difficulty and every story certainly seems complete in itself.
The book contains nine stories, so with only 214 pages to the book, none of them is over-long. Its hard to fault any of them and looking at Amazon reviews by other readers I find it hard to understand those who have rated the book as low as two or three stars - having read a few of those reviews, I've come to the conclusion that generally its the genre of Irish short stories they don't like, or even the "gayness" of some of them which has put them off.
This is never going to be a dramatic read, but rather a slow unfolding, a realisation of things unspoken. By the time I finished the book I was conscious that I had not been confronted full-on by any of these snapshots on other people's lives, but had been drawn in almost as looking through a lighted window, and then, as the story finished, I had turned away as the action continued on pages unseen.
I found this an engaging read - I started it on a Friday evening and had finished it by Sunday. One problem for readers of short stories is that it can be a bit of an effort to get into each story. You just manage to get your bearings on one set of characters and locations when the story finishes and you have to start all over again with the next. In The Empty Family, I found myself drawn on from one to another with no sense of effort, but rather a sense of expectancy as I turned from one story to the next - there was a sort of continuity there which definitely made this collection easier to read than many others.