The Empty Family, by Colm Toibin

I just finished reading The Empty Family, the new short story collection by Irish literary author Colm Toibin (apologies for the lack of accents; I’m not a sophisticated enough blogger to know if WordPress has a way of including accents in foreign words).  I try to not read just high fantasy, even though that’s what I like best, because I think that reading more broadly makes me a better writer (at least, I hope that it will).  Of course, this means that I don’t actually get around to reading most of the big high fantasy titles that come out each year.  But I think the trade-off is worth it.  I think when I just read the same sorts of stories all the time, I develop a terribly narrow view of what constitutes good fiction, and I like trying to learn what appeals to other readers in a book that I might not be quite as excited about as, say, the latest installment in A Song of Ice and Fire.

What I found most compelling about the stories in Toibin’s collection was his wonderful skill of characterization.  The individuals who populate these stories are all complex and vividly portrayed, sometimes less aware than the reader of what’s going on around them, sometimes self-deceptive, but always fascinating.  My favorite story was “The New Spain”, about a young woman returning home a few years after Franco’s death, after living in London for several years.  The family summer home on Menorca has changed in the years she’s been away, leading to conflicts with her parents and sister; but perhaps she also bears some of the blame for the changes that she loathes.  It’s a beautiful, slow-moving examination of coming home after enough years have passed to change both the traveler and the homeland.

I also really liked “The Colour of Shadows”, about a man caring for the dying aunt who raised him after he was abandoned by his mother, and “The Street”, about two Pakistani immigrant men in Barcelona and the relationship that develops between them.  I have a sense that the stories I liked best were the ones that, to me, seemed to have the most momentum, or plot, where I was intrigued because it felt that things were happening and I wanted to know what would happen next.  I think this is a genre reader/writer thing, and it seems to me that in literary fiction, it’s perfectly acceptable to write a story that is a close examination of a key moment in a character’s life, but in which (to a prejudiced genre reader) not a lot seems to happen.

It’s good to see what authors will do when they’re not working under the constraints that I’m used to.  I found the characterizations in Toibin’s collection much deeper and richer and also more subtle than I usually find in fantasy or science fiction short stories.  But I still liked best the stories where he brought this skill of characterization to a situation with more obvious conflict and momentum.

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