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Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush Colm Toibin Picador

30th July 2011 History Books 18 Comments

‘Biographical portraits are too often nowadays smudged in a surfeit of words… this one is a brilliant illumination’ Spectator

Colm Toibin was born in Ireland in 1955, and lives in Dublin. He is the author of four novels, including the 1999 Booker nominated The Blackwater Lightship. His non-fiction includes Bad Blood, Homage to Barcelona, The Sign of the Cross, and, mmost recently, Love in a Dark Time.

At once conservative and radical in her beliefs, she saw no conflict in idealizing and mythologizing the Irish peasantry, for example, while her landlord husband introduced legislation that would, in part, lead to the widespread misery, poverty and starvation of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, as founder of the Abbey Theatre, an outspoken opponent of censorship and mentor, muse and mother-figure to W.B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory played a pivotal role in shaping Irish history and dramatic history. Moreover, despite her parents’ early predictions of spinsterhood, she was no matronly figure, engaging in a passionate affair while newly-wedded and, as she approached 60, falling for a man almost 20 years her junior.

‘Biographical portraits are too often nowadays smudged in a surfeit of words… this one is a brilliant illumination’ Spectator

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

The Empty Family: Stories

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2011: A young woman returning to the small island of her childhood summers; a nephew caring for his dying aunt; two men cautiously discovering love amid a community shrouded in tradition–these are the delicately rendered characters inhabiting Colm Toibin’s remarkable collection of short stories, The Empty Family. Toibin artfully constructs the quiet moments in the lives of individuals, examining the unexpected ways in which people become strangers to one another as families fragment, separate, and regenerate in new forms. With a tone that moves seamlessly between fervor and melancholy, Toibin examines the imperfect relationships of parents, children, lovers, and friends, and–with a befitting nod toward Henry James–the meaning of love in its many forms. In The Empty Family, Toibin proves once again that his mastery of language is matched only by his acute understanding of human longing. –Lynette Mong

From the internationally celebrated author of Brooklyn and The Master, and winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, comes a stunning new book of fiction.

In the captivating stories that make up The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín delineates with a tender and unique sensibility, lives of unspoken or unconscious longing, of individuals often willingly cast adrift from their history. From the young Pakistani immigrant who seeks some kind of permanence in a strange town, to the Irish woman reluctantly returning to Dublin and discovering a city that refuses to acknowledge her long absence, each of Tóibín’s stories manage to contain whole worlds: stories of fleeing the past and returning home, of family threads lost and ultimately regained.

Like Tóibín’s celebrated novels, and his previous short story collection, Mothers and Sons, reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, The Empty Family will further confirm Tóibín’s status as “his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power.”

The Empty Family: Stories

  • 18 responses to "Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush Colm Toibin Picador"

  • John Leung
    15:26 on July 30th, 2011
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    I love Colm Toibin’s works. And this one was no disappointment. I had just read Brooklyn.
    The book of short stories is very diverse. The locations are from Ireland to Barcelona, Spain.
    Each story is in itself a fine tuned piece. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed his other books, especially The Master on Henry James.

  • Seano
    20:22 on July 30th, 2011
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    The tension of the Anglo-Irish, Toibin argues, can be charted in Lady Gregory’s own life, as she negotiated the difficult balancing act of a Coole landowner hosting balls for British nobles before going off to her next social engagement, a tea party for the ladies in the local workhouse. Speaking of the latter, the infamous if well-intended Famine-era “Gregory Act” enacted by her family, that pushed off so many from their small plot of land into emigration, ironically making the conditions for those who remained behind in Ireland better off, is delved into efficiently. Toibin, with sympathy but not apology, notes how she, no less than Pearse, Joyce, O’Casey, Synge, Hyde, Gonne, or Yeats during the period from 1890-1925 (for those among the Revival who managed to live through the Rising and the subsequent strife), had to constantly reinvent and embroider and disguise her contested Irish identity. This extended essay, more a monograph than a full-fledged book, briefly sums up the general trajectory of how the rise of the Free State paralled the life and successes of the coterie led in no small part not only by the more prominent and grandstanding Yeats but also by Lady G.

    It’s not recommended for those who may be unfamiliar with “The Countess Cathleen,” for example, or the plays put on by Yeats, her, and their colleagues/rivals for the Abbey Theatre. While a well-chosen list of primary sources and scholarship is appended, no footnotes are given, and Toibin seems to expect his readers to be already familiar with the Irish political, cultural and literary currents of the early 20c. Little description of her writings and no literary analysis to speak of can be found here. Rather, Toibin seeks to uncover what the title of the book indicates: the gap that Lady G. sought to close but never fully could…between those like Lady G. who used a toothbrush, to cite her bon mot–that is, who were civilized, and those–such as the peasants that she alternately romanticized, ministered to, and ridiculed–who had no such dentifrice.

  • Obladi Oblada
    1:59 on July 31st, 2011
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    Colm Toibin wastes no words in the nine stories of his collection, The Empty Family. He brings characters to life with impressive efficiency, and places them in situations and relationships that unveil the complexities of love and loss and longing. Fans of the short story genre will appreciate the skill displayed in these stories, and most readers will find the stories engaging, especially because of his lyrical and precise writing. Readers of Toibin’s novels may find the shift in form leaves one wanting more, or asking “is that all there is?” after completing a story. For those who want more, re-read one of these stories, or revisit one of his novels. Toibin’s considerable talent is worth a reader’s time.

    Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

  • TrafficWarden
    2:23 on July 31st, 2011
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    THE EMPTY ROOM is a priceless collection of short stories from the brilliant author Colm Tóibín. It could be easily said that once hooked on Tóibín’s writing the bond is permanent. This exquisite collection is a series of indecisive moments in the lives of folk who are well into middle life, shackled between remembered emotion and the inevitable aging tranquility that is their future. He creates a panorama of characters about whom we come to know and with whom we empathize, but at the same time these created people are laid out on the near-necropsy postmortem table for us to touch and examine and step away.

    The nine stories included in this volume include ‘Silence’, a story transplanted to another time in which a Lady Gregory, an abandoned widow who has lost her recent lover, has a peppery dinner conversation with Henry James. In ‘The New Spain’, ‘exiles return to bury loved ones, and ruminate on what other past associates might be up to. A Leftist dissident from Franco’s Spain comes back home to a cool reception at the family villa in Menorca.’ ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is a “grim, almost plotless thriller with gay subplots” and “overwrought and graphically violent screenplays.” Our hero is invited to have dinner with a married couple, a man named Donnacha and a woman named Grainne, both of whom he has known since they were at school together decades earlier. The two boys (as they were then) were lovers before Donnacha linked up with the fiery, strong-willed Grainne, a religious reformer who has gained some notoriety by insisting “that she and other like-minded lay people represented the true Catholic Church more than the bishops and priests.”

    Much of what we read in The Empty Family is Tóibín’s apparent obsessive interest in ‘the principal torments available to the educated, Left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age. The men and women who brought us up, and bustled us off to the good schools they never got to attend, will weaken and die, and our professional success won’t help them or us deal with that.’ For this reader the most compelling story is the very genteel love story represented in ‘The Street’ – a tale of Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona who somehow survive the threat of being outsiders and in the case of Malik and Abdul discover their same sex needs and find some fulfillment despite the narrow confines of living in a hostile world.

    Colm Tóibín is a Master Craftsman, a wordsmith without peer, and everything he touches radiates a magic that only he is capable of transforming ordinary lives into extraordinary experiences for the reader. This, then, is literary genius. Grady Harp, September 11

  • Jim Levitt
    8:08 on July 31st, 2011
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    I am afraid to assume that I might not be a fan of short stories but this book could leave me feeling that way.

  • nedendir
    9:35 on July 31st, 2011
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    The nine stories in Colm Tóibín’s THE EMPTY FAMILY are set in such locations as Ireland, Spain and the U.S. Their time frames range from 19th-century England to the 1970s through the present day. Though disparate in several ways, these offerings share certain elements. They reflect themes of life, loss and solitude, but more importantly, beautiful writing that tugs at the heart of the reader in ways that words simply cannot describe.

    The Irish-born Tóibín is the author of six novels, including THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP, THE MASTER (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and BROOKLYN (winner of the Costa Book Award). He has taught at Stanford, the University of Texas, and Princeton. Whether the setting is Spain, Ireland or the U.S., Tóibín’s writing shows a remarkable recognition of history and locale. Reading “One Minus One,” he describes a time period when he taught in New York City as “the city was about to enter its last year of innocence.” By that brief descriptive passage, Tóibín does far more than establish time. Through the power of literary economy, he describes a moment in history we will never forget.

    The title story of the collection is set in California, a coastal locale the narrator treats as a substitute for his Irish homeland. “The Empty Family” reminds us of family, death and home. The narrator understands that home is more than a place; it’s life, a combination of experience, objects and family. One can never leave home and family.

    Frances Rossiter is the main character in “Two Women.” A respected film set designer “almost precisely between seventy-five and eighty,” she comes back to Dublin for a movie assignment. Her return brings memories of a long-ago love affair. By chance she meets the widow of her lover and comes to understand how both of them were a part of his life, each offering him a part of their lives that the other could not. Through those two distinct contributions, they helped make his life complete. It’s a poignant and enlightening meeting.

    “One Minus One” is another story of loss and displacement. It finds the narrator living in Texas, thinking of his mother on the anniversary of her death. Six years ago, he returned to Ireland for her funeral. Recounting the details through thoughts of his ex-lover and the loss of that relationship, he recalls all he has lost. Tóibín is a man who has travelled around the globe, but clearly part of him has never left Ireland.

    The longest contribution to THE EMPTY FAMILY is “The Street,” a novella set in Barcelona. The story focuses on Pakistini immigrants who are exploited and controlled and their struggle to live in post-Franco Spain. Two of the inhabitants of an immigrant house, Malik and Abdul, eventually fall in love. Their relationship is uncovered, and they suffer the consequences of ostracism. Somehow they persevere because, as Abdul eventually says to Malik, “My real family is you.”

    The stories here contain a certain autobiographical element, reflecting the issues inherent in the modern post-1950s generation. The common themes of regret and longing may make the book difficult to read without great emotion. Still, the extraordinary tone set by this beautiful writing makes THE EMPTY FAMILY a wonderful collection.

    — Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman

  • Analyzethis
    21:02 on July 31st, 2011
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    The people who feature in the nine stories that make up this collection seem to be solitary individuals with strong needs for personal autonomy. This results in a sense of loneliness, of detachment from the people and events surrounding them, even when they return home for a funeral or to attend to some unfinished business. But loneliness is sometimes regretted, at least a little. Consider Lady Gregory reflecting on her affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in `Silence’, feeling the lack of `a close discreet friend to whom such things could be whispered.’ Carme, in `The New Spain’ has travelled home to Menorca to claim her inheritance. While she feels `no desire to make contact with anyone, no one she had left behind in London, and no one here…’ her energies are absorbed in recapturing aspects of the past. Once she has rid herself of her parents and resolved to remove the wall that her father built between her grandmother’s house and the sea, she feels `a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease she had not believed would ever come her way.’ Both women, in their different ways, are drawn to the past.

    Other stories include `Two Women’ in which a well-known but difficult Irish-born set designer returns to Ireland and comes face to face with an aspect of her past life, when she meets the wife of her long ago (and now dead) lover. `The Street’ in which Malik and Abdul, two Pakistani workers in Barcelona, surreptitiously establish and then come to terms with the nature of their relationship is both the longest story in the collection and in many ways the most challenging. The loneliness, in both these cases, is at least partly a consequence of choice.

    The past is one theme in this collection, as is loss and exile. In a couple of cases, exile is a consequence of relationship choice, in others it is because of geography. Homosexuality, in a couple of stories, adds another dimension. Abdul and Malik become each other’s real family while other relationships (in this and other stories) are threatened.

    In these stories, Colm Tóibín has created different worlds full of challenges for each individually defined family. It’s deceptively easy to read – the writing is beautiful – but not always easy to understand, and never entirely comfortable.

    Jennifer Cameron-Smith

  • Seano
    1:58 on August 1st, 2011
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    I’ve never read a word by Colm Toibin before this amazing collection, but you can believe I will read many more words of his. He is one of the excellent ones, the ones who, though they are shaping tales with the same language we use daily, are somehow putting a different shine on it, making “mere” language more than itself, making art that moves us. I haven’t encountered that to such a degree since I read Henry Roth’s _Call It Sleep_.

    I was most connected to the stories of family, of the loss of the older generation, the way it feels after they are gone.In these stories I kept finding a piece of myself here, and a piece there, and parts of the unwritten,unspoken thoughts that go on in the back of my mind, that I am barely conscious of. We know, we know, we feel we do not say.

    He conveyes so much emotion with what he is holding back, I don’t know how he does it, but I know that this is great art, superb writing. It makes me feel, not just skim words across my brain. He connects the human condition through its isolation. Just a great find. I highly recommend this collection.

  • Ripel
    3:51 on August 1st, 2011
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    I have a high regard for Colm’s work, particularly his novels. But his short stories have never seemed to me to be his strongest work. I read them, and I’m never sorry that I took the time to read them. He has a gift for creating characters you care about, characters you believe in. And he can create plot lines that are extremely compelling. The problem is that almost none of his stories feature any kind of resolution. They simply end when he decides they should, leaving you wondering what the point is. If you’ve read Colm’s work before, and enjoyed it, by all means buy this book. If you haven’t, one of his novels would be a better place to start–I would recommend “The Master,” his finest achievement.

  • jorge robert
    10:55 on August 1st, 2011
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    In a hyper-connected world, where friends, family, and even people we hardly know are only a text, Skype, email, Poke, Tweet, Re-tweet, IM, or call away, there is something about willed isolation, the desire to remain cut-off and removed from the heartbeat of anything resembling a loving community that is all the more chilling.

    Colm Toibin, in this collection of short fiction, has managed a masterful array of stories, and a collage of characters that unveil with melancholic ardor the pain, loss, and empty hearts of people who have refused, run away from, or been denied love. Love lingers in their lives like an open wound, borne from an encounter decades ago.

    Toibin- like with “Brooklyn” and “The Master” – in these works displays deft restraint. His prose is terse and powerful. His characters’ pain is the simple product of a series of wrong turns- that combined and compounded into something more. Central to almost every character in these stories is a lack of reconciliation with the past. Toibin’s characters are running- from pain, love lost, truth, loneliness, confusion, time.

    With each passing decade, the onion adds layers. Toibin gives readers of “The Empty Family” first the mature, ripe onion- followed by a series of glimpses into its core. In this way, the structure of Toibin’s stories mimic the rhythm and construction of memory. Nothing is more detailed than now. But the emotion of the past, we cannot escape. The impact of moments, whose importance only grow with age, become more clear, and sometimes painful, in the repeating now. The past emerges to the surface like the first, petite bubbles in a pot of stovetop water that is about to turn over into a violent boil.

    Frances, in “Two Women”, is in the twilight of her life and career. She is a woman “that did not allow herself to feel pain.” Frances, on a trip for work to Ireland, is reminded of her 12-year love affair with a man named Luke. “Besides her career, nothing interested her now except her house and her own mind.” But for Frances, like so many characters in these stories, the house and mind are not a place of growth and expansion, but rather of retreat. It is a place Frances goes to hide. She resigns from the vulnerability of love in the familiar and routine machinations of her work. Luke was a big decision in her life that she fumbled; and now it haunts her.

    Through the pain and loss that Toibin orchestrates with the touch of a puppeteer in these stories, through the absence of love, we are given perhaps the most powerful testament of its presence. Love ceaselessly beckons through the void. “The Empty Family” unveils, in all its subtle splendors, this tug of war between the safeness and isolation of a life without love versus the allure and vulnerability of one where love is present. Toibin offers us a powerful portrait of the ruinous effects of a hardened heart on the soul; and in so doing, champions the importance of an open and ever mindful heart.

  • John Baxter
    13:49 on August 1st, 2011
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    I have read most of this author in the past and enjoyed him. I do wish that somoeone had mentionned that this book is a series of homoerotic stories. It wasn’t what I had thought it would be. It is beautifully written but not for me.

  • Rick Monson
    8:04 on August 2nd, 2011
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    I’ve read nearly all of Toibin’s books and this is one of the best yet. Certainly his best short story collection. Elegant and moving throughout. Highly recommended.

  • Dagmar Naguin
    18:24 on August 2nd, 2011
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    The nine elegiac stories that make up this exquisite collection feature characters united in their solitude, isolated souls reflecting on their lives and wounds. What unites the stories themselves is the sculpted beauty of Mr. Toibin’s prose. Loss and longing are the emotional undercurrents, whether that of an adulterous affair, a gay love story in a repressive society, or the pain of a love affair that reached the end of its natural life but keeps up an afterlife unknown even to its protagonists. Ireland is the home that his characters (try to) escape from or are pulled back to, willingly and not. Other stories are voiced like love letters to the anonymous “you”.

    Here is one writer who goes from strength to strength; he seems to just get better with each successive work. While the stories may vary in how satisfying one finds each of the narratives, Toibin’s precise ability to catch the ebb and flow of his characters thoughts and emotions remains thrillingly constant. A collection worthy of the author of “The Master” and “Brooklyn”.

  • robotech
    8:03 on August 3rd, 2011
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    I enjoyed a few of the stories in this collection. The author is clearly quite talented. I do feel that folks should be aware before buying this book that two of the stories contain raw, intimate details of gay sex acts. If you will be offended by this, then move on to another choice.

  • pop frame
    10:54 on August 3rd, 2011
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    “When he went upstairs and looked at his old bedroom, he noticed how worn the carpet was, and how the color on the wallpaper had faded. He must, he thought, have noticed this before, but now the room seemed shabby and strange, almost unfamiliar, and not the room he had slept in every night throughout his childhood, with the small desk in the corner where he did his homework.”

    The Colour of Shadows is my favorite story in this amazing collection of short stories by Irish witer Colm Toibin. As has been written about Toibin before, he is at his most authentic when he is writing about the people and places of Ireland.

    This story is heartbreakingly simple: Paul, a gay man, living in Dublin quietly takes over the care of his dying aunt Josie who has raised him. The two are very close (at some level) and have great respect and tenderness for one another. Yet there is one utterance from Josie –near death — mistaking Paul for a family friend, that momentarily shatters their relationship. Yet the strength of this piece is its simplicity, its quiet style and honest description of the town, the neighbors and his aunt. It never turns into overwrought, confrontational dialogue. The narrator simply tells the tale of deep love marred by the inability of Josie,an otherwise giving and generous person, to understand Paul’s homosexuality because of her age and her own upbringing. It is painful, but Paul understands, at some level, that she nevertheless loved him, and took great care of him as a child.

  • Juana Cruz
    14:14 on August 3rd, 2011
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    The Empty Family is the latest collection of stories from one of the better fiction writers today, Colm Toibim. Toibim writes in a sometimes dry and clinical fashion, but with this sparse and elegant prose he is somehow able to pull the deepest emotions from his characters, to show them at their most vulnerable and human, even as they fight to mask it. His most recent works, Brooklyn, and his last story collection, Mothers and Sons, were both masterful works.

    The Empty Family though falls a little short of its predecessors.

    There are some memorable stories here. The opener, `Silence’, is a brilliant historical piece about one Lady Gregory, widowed by an elderly husband and abandoned by her true love, who at a dinner party reveals her secret pain to the novelist Henry James as an idea a for a novel. In `Two Women’, a rude and domineering set designer is humbled in a surprise encounter with a former rival. `The New Spain’ shows us an exile who comes home to post-Franco Spain to find a country, and a family, she doesn’t recognize. These first two especially show Toibim’s mastery of hidden pain. The last delves into loneliness, also a recurrent theme here.

    But there are a few duds this time around. `The Empty Family’ requires another reading to decipher, if one would only want to. `Barcelona, 1975′ seems to be primarily about sex. (And this is something to be aware of if you haven’t read Mothers and Sons: Toibim sometimes likes to get graphic.)

    Still, though it’s not perfect, Toibim is always worthwhile. But If you haven’t read him before, I would start with one of his earlier works, like The Master, Brooklyn, or Mothers and Sons.

  • Jim Levitt
    20:00 on August 3rd, 2011
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    I have read just about everything that I’ve found available (in English) of Colm Toibin. As the list of books has grown, I’ve come to appreciate his candor and writing skills. I appreciated Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush because of this refreshing presentation of history. Toibin’s connecting of historical persons was delightful since this doesn’t often seem to be done (and done so extremely well) by many other authors. Lady Gregory was a real ‘corker’ to use a bit of slang, someone I just might have enjoyed knowing. I hope some day to connect with Colm Toibin. If his writing style is anything at all like he speaks, he would certainly be more than a delight as someone with whom to spend time!

  • Lisa Llano
    6:15 on August 4th, 2011
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    Someone, either the editors or Colm Toibin, must have thought “The Empty Family” was the best story in his new collection of short stories just published since that is the name chosen for the collection. Edmund White’s vote, according to his blurb, went to “The Street.” I would have agreed with him until I read “Two Women.” (Although this is the third of the nine stories published, I jumped around and read it last.) It is one of those rare stories that move along, interesting enough; then in the final paragraphs, you get broadsided with a truth almost too painful and sad to read. It reminded me so much of the short story “The Dead” by another another great Irish writer James Joyce that Reynolds Price has described as the best short story ever written in English and that Carson McCullers reread once a year at Christmas. Frances is a woman between seventy-five and eighty who has just returned to Dublin from the U. S., where she has lived in California for many years, to “dress” sets for a film director. She is all business and knows she can be intimidating. She is “glad she had been brought up in this country [Ireland] for long enough to appreciate being so far away from it.” Things go as planned until she sees a porter in the National Gallery and the past comes washing over her. I would easily put this story in my top ten best short stories list.

    As are so many of these stories “Two Woman” is about love, loss, loneliness, remembrance and opportunities missed. Many of the characters are now middle-aged. Some of the characters are even older, dying in nursing homes. The narrator in `The Empty Family” remembers that “We had used up all our time. And I wondered if that made any difference to my mother then, as she lay away in the hospital those last few nights of her life: we had used up all our time.” Many of the stories have an elegiac quality about them. The characters have a quiet resignation about them for what cannot now be changed. The narrator in “The Pearl Fishers” ruminates after an evening with a married couple–he has slept with the male of the couple years ago while the two men were students and has not seen him for years: ” And I thought as I crossed the bridge at Baggot Street to face the last stretch of my own journey. . . No matter how grim the city [Dublin] I walked through was, how cavernous my attic rooms, how long and solitary the night to come, I would not exchange any of it for the easy rituals of mutuality and closeness that Grainne and Donnacha [the married couple] were performing now.”

    Mr. Toibin’s evocative prose is beautifully sparse. His descriptions of the sea are as good as good writing gets: “The beach was almost empty and all the sand on it was tossed by people who had spent the day lying out under the sun or running down to the water’s edge. . . The water had that lovely feel of the end of the day; the soft waves had been rolling in and out under the full heat of the sun, even the sand below the waves felt warm on her feet. (“The New Spain”) Lady Gregory in “Silence” makes a list of things to live for: “Her son, Robert, would always come first, and then some of her sisters. She often thought of erasing one or two of them, and maybe one brother, but no more than one. And then Coole Park, the house in Ireland her husband had left her, or at least left their son, and to which she could return when she wished. She thought of the trees she had planted at Coole, she often dreamed of going back there to study the slow progress of things as the winter gave way to spring, or autumn came. And there were books and paintings and how light came into a high room as she pulled the shutters back in the morning. She would add these also to the list.” As all good writers do, Toibin of course made me think of what I would put on my list of things to live for. Certainly being able to see those blue Smoky Mountains, those most distant that bleed into the sky, would be high on my list.

    In this collection, Mr. Toibin has written nine near-perfect stories.

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