Book report: The Empty Family

I’m fascinated by characters on thresholds. And I identify with them too. I carry that sense of being on the threshold of something new always. But even more so these days, as I approach my mid-thirties. But it’s a different kind of threshold now. It isn’t the dramatic threshold of youth; when you’re on the cusp of setting out, getting started and gathering momentum, hitting milestones and firsts.

Instead, it’s the threshold between ambition and acceptance, an understanding that, for better or worse, I’m well on my way now. A reconciliation that this is what I'm working with, this body, this brain, this way-of-being. And yet, life is far from over. There’s much that can be accomplished and hoped for, stuff that can’t even be dreamed of yet. So it’s not resignation as much as a self-acceptance and growing realism. And, in that way, it’s consoling and even confidence-building.


Still, I think it’s a threshold because there’s still extreme vacillation between understanding so much is still possible and understanding the degree of determinism in our lives. The characters in Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family seem at, or just past, this point.

They think a lot about the past, about trysts and moments of hinge-propositions. But not in the deathbed way; more in the manner of somebody stepping away from all of that. Into a phase where they know themselves better and have let go of the youthful, wide-eyed great expectations.

Colm Tóibín is one of my favourite writers (I absolutely adored Brooklyn, his last novel). I don’t think he’s a Beckettan writer, but he does have that Beckettan skill of distancing himself from the easy lyricism of Irish story-telling. His writing is more spare than that, less romantic, less Yeatsian. It’s dreadfully easy to fall into that peculiar Irish musicality, so it takes particular discipline to stay away from it and yet remain a compassionate, moving storyteller. Tóibín is all of that.
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