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We had a good turnout for our discussion of this collection of short stories from the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, probably best known for his novel, Nora Webster and also Brooklyn, which was made into a film last year and nominated for three Academy Awards.

The Empty Family was published as a collection in 2010. Some of the stories had been previously published in journals and papers. Like many of Tóibín’s works the nine stories are concerned with themes of ‘exile and return, death and loss, irreconcilable love affairs and conflicting loyalties, the differences between the families we are born into and those we choose for ourselves, or would if we could’ (Guardian).

Tóibín’s lyrical writing appealed to us, and his ability to get so deeply into the heart of his characters. We felt that he’s particularly good at understanding women and the inner conflicts they suffer. The title story, The Empty Family, is a rather torturous examination of relationships. We discussed how Tóibín conveys the poignancy of emigration – you come back and don’t fit in and find everyone else had just got on with their lives.

We found the story, The Colour of Shadows, particularly poignant, ‘a lovely story’, about Paul being called back to Enniscorthy from Dublin when his aunt Josie is taken to hospital. After visiting her, back at her house he’s amazed by how different it seems without her presence: ‘how small everything was, not only the rooms themselves but the objects in them … the place had shrunk in Josie’s absence’.

Some people found the stories, like Barcelona 1975, which contain graphic homosexual sex scenes at bit too explicit and felt they sometimes seemed gratuitous.

We also discussed Tóibín’s tendency to use a structure of talking to a third party and whether we found this worked well for us. Someone felt she eventually became the third party – as if Tóibín was talking to her. But we also felt that it enhanced the separation emigrants can feel on returning home, that the people of their past – especially people with whom they’ve had an intimate relationship – can seem closer than the other people they meet and the memories powerful.

A favourite story was Two Women and it was thought a ‘very skilful story’. There are so many things going on; multiple relationships. We also felt The New Spain was very clever.

We concluded it had been a very successful choice: a book we’d enjoyed but which had also inspired some good discussion.

Kay Gale

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