Much has been made around the traps of the fact that Colm Tóibín published a story in his last collection that used the word empty (and words deriving from it) fourteen times, though no one has bothered to acknowledge that the story in question was about an Irish bank robber trying to move a Rembrandt on the black market.

While it’s convenient to consider that The Empty Family has loss as a leitmotif, it takes a fan to recognise that it also functions as a Tóibín theme park: most of the stories dip into subject areas he has expanded on at length elsewhere. He now possesses the house more or less described in the title story, as well as the view on the coast he has written about so often in his fiction set in Ireland.

He has spoken of his delight in being able to take a firmer hold on a sense of place in his fiction upon first reading the work of Alistair MacLeod, the revered Canadian writer of the Scottish diaspora. However when Tóibín does this, it’s as part of a larger project that takes in other travellers, who (among other things) also ask themselves questions about possession.

I sometimes think that his entry into international writing appeared careful to the point of neutrality, his fiction peopled by figures intent on disguising their emotions and claims on others, until his astonishing performance in his award-winning bio-fiction about Henry James, The Master, where he displayed a surefooted use of American history sources. Tóibín is a history graduate and has written about Irish history in mainstream publications, reviewing Roy Foster’s groundbreaking leadership (perhaps invention) of the school of Irish revisionist history for the London Review of Books, among other things.

That security with historical material is only one of the girders beneath the beautiful structure that houses his recreation of James’ life between the failure of the play, Guy Domville, and the purchase of Lamb House, his final home in Sussex. The other is the Jamesian control he has sought to develop throughout his writing career of indirect free style. That this technique would uncover such a rich and telling depiction of James himself, free of the slightest hint of parody, remains one of the exciting discoveries of modern fiction.

In a story collection, of course, indirect free style (or ‘third person intimate’ as Tóibín has recently called it) has a place, though some stories are more equal to its discursive challenges than others. This collection sees the use of first person narrative and the occasional shifting-spanner second person for perhaps the first time in any work I’ve seen by this writer, which may be a result of the time he has spent in recent years teaching writing in the USA. Where it is used, quite sparingly, it provides a welcome shift of pace, allowing the prose to breathe with an easier, more lyrical rhythm than the deeply reflective strictures of Jamesian narrative allow. It also allows for a more direct expression of emotion than one often sees in his work, including, characteristically, a confession from one narrator towards ‘a feeling as close to anger as I will ever be able to manage.’

Read the rest of this review over at Literary Minded.

Peter Fray

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