Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family is Great.

Posted on April 19, 2012
Filed Under Book Review, Queer Lit News, Strong Recommendation | Leave a Comment

Tonight the Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced in New York City. Let me say in advance: congratulations to the winners.  And also to all the nominees.  This year there was a bit of controversy as Band of Thebes’ Stephen Bottum asked the question:  Why wasn’t Colm Toibin’s book of fiction, The Empty Family, nominated? I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Bottum.  Only three of the stories in this collection could be labelled “gay.”  And fortunately, I don’t have to make these decisions.  I am, however, extremely grateful to Mr. Bottum for calling my attention to this book.  Here is my long overdue review:

Who was it that said:  “Story is the second most primitive human need:  after food and before shelter”?  What is it about a compelling story that makes one drop everything–figuratively and sometimes literally?  I found myself asking these questions recently when the phone rang.  It was my partner calling to check in…blah, blah…  “Could you call me back later.  I’m reading.”  Then I dropped the phone’s receiver onto its base.  I was in the middle of reading “The Street”: the longest story in Colm Toibin’s newest collection, The Empty Family.  Although the story is almost seventy pages long, I found it impossible to put down.  Mr. Toibin creates an emotional pull which is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited.”  Like Mr. Fitzgerald, Mr. Toibin keeps the plotting of his story below the surface–the central dramatic questions unasked.  In both of these stories, the plot sneaks up on you.  You don’t even realize there is one at first. And then suddenly the phone rings.  And you realize you are half way through it.  And you can’t put it down.

“The Street” is the story of a Pakistani emigrant in Barcelona.  He helps out at a barber shop, sells phone cards and then moves up to selling phones, but the world he inhabits seems almost as alien to him as it does to the reader.  The turning point in the story comes when he realizes that one of his housemates sexually desires him.  Mr Toiibin tells this story in a direct style that is all his own:  telling much, only rarely describing the most essential details.  The net result is literary and compelling.

While “The Street” is, in my opinion the best story in this collection, all of the others in this book are very good.  The title story–“The Empty Family”–is so beautifully rendered that it demands to be read as poetry–slowly, savoring every individual paragraph.  It is a simple variation on the Thomas Wolfe theme, You Can’t Go Home Again, but it is the characterizations and the sheer quality of the writing that define this story as a masterpiece.

The first story in the collection, “Silence,” is a witty exploration of the life of a woman mentioned in The Notebooks of Henry James.   In “Two Women,” the main character is a successful (slightly bitter) film set designer.  Her journey through filming Dublin is also a journey through her own memories of Dublin.  This is a superbly written story.  It is also surprisingly humorous.  “One Minus One” and “The Color of Shadows” are poignant explorations of witnessing the death of a loved one.  “Barcelona 1975”  explores the interface of sexuality and politics in the waning days of the Franco era.  It features explicit descriptions of gay male orgies.

The third “gay story” in this collection is “The Pearl Fishers.”  And it is much more complex than that label might imply.  In multiple flashbacks, “The Pearl Fishers” tells the story of three friends from Catholic boarding school.  And yes a priest is involved.  This story is an exploration of the politics and church issues in contemporary Ireland.  But for me this is a story about what it means to be gay today.  Quite a rarity in literary fiction.

I’m no good at passing judgement on writers, but based on these stories, it strikes me that Colm Toibin might just be the best writer of fiction alive today.

Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family is published by Scribner.

UPDATE 4/20/12:  Click here for The Gay City News coverage of the Publishing Triangle Awards–including a q. and a. with the editor of

UPDATE 6/5/12:  Last night it was announced that The Empty Family won the Lambda Award for Gay Fiction. A much-deserved win.


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