Landscapes of loneliness

The characters of Colm Tóibín’s new collection of short stories journey through chilly depth of alienation in reflections on love, loss, regret, and pride

(Christopher Serra)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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Two stories stand out from the chill in the new collection by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín. One is a witty elaboration on a snippet from Henry James’s notebooks; the other, a many-faceted love story set among gay Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona. The remaining seven, several of them gay-themed, share a gray emotional uniformity; their protagonists frozen in a dim regret muffled by overmastering pride.

“The Empty Family’’ is the title of one of these seven (and, appropriately, of the collection as a whole). Years earlier, its narrator had fled Ireland for San Francisco after his male lover suffered an unspecified breakdown. Regularly, though, he had sent back furniture and other items for the empty seaside house he owned. When the story begins he has returned, never really having left; in California he’d kept up his old bent for staring at the sea; now, with a telescope he is back at it. No refuge for this dryly tormented man, though. “It came to me then,’’ he says, “that the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle.’’

Even less distinct, to the point of invisibility, “One Minus One’’ (another appropriate title) has the narrator also returning from the United States, in this case to see a dying mother who never much cared for him, nor he for her. As with “The Empty Family,’’ he addresses a long-gone male lover, not for any thought of a response, let alone action, but as you might address a lingering headache.

In “The Colour of Shadows,’’ it is an invalid aunt the narrator comes back to visit, one who had brought him up after his mother’s abandonment. He feels vague guilt at having neglected her. Vague is all he can muster. Tóibín is writing the prideful imprisonment of anomie; the author, who is gay himself, has created a set of gay characters so involved in their own feelings that these wither from sheer airlessness.

There is something more of action, if not of emotion, in two others. In “The Pearl Fishers’’ a reclusively self-sufficient thriller writer recalls having sex, vividly described, with another schoolboy; it is lust, though, without feeling. There is even less feeling and even more graphically rendered sex, bordering on the pornographic, in “Barcelona, 1975’’ — a young man’s account of male orgies in Catalonia around the time of Franco’s death.

Set in the same changing times, “The New Spain’’ tells of a woman, exiled earlier for left-wing activities, returning to quarrel bitterly with her parents, who had despoiled the beautiful family estate to build tourist bungalows. No anomie with her, and lots of anger; underneath, though, the same icy splinter. Tóibín, who has lived in Barcelona, writes keenly of Spanish history, but, as was true of his early novel “The South,’’ even the most acutely rendered history requires someone to live in it.

Then, among the gray, two very different bursts of color. “Silence’’ elaborates James’s recollection of an anecdote he heard from the Irish literary figure Lady Gregory. A clergyman about to begin his honeymoon discovers that his new wife had a previous love affair. He returns her to her family, subsequently taking her back but refusing to have sex with her.

Tóibín imagines a Lady Gregory, lovelessly married to a much older man, having a passionate affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. When the affair ends she writes a series of love sonnets and sends them to him to be published under his own name. Mortally afraid of discovery, she finds that this indirect venting fails to satisfy her paradoxical need to have the affair known. By telling James the story, somewhat disguised, she hopes he might write it, giving her another vicarious stab at fame. It’s a wittily searching twist, even if there is a touch of Saki to its mousetrap snap.

The full-blooded triumph of the collection is “The Street.’’ Tóibín vividly depicts the hardship of Pakistani immigrants, brought to Barcelona for cheap labor, sleeping eight to a room, and fearful of Baldy, their tyrannical Pakistani boss. The most fearful and downtrodden is Malik, miserably incompetent at his assigned job as a barber and the particular object of Baldy’s abuse.

Abdul, one of the roommates, falls ill, and the gentle Malik tends him. A brief caress from the patient and Malik falls instantly in love. Alternately arrogant, aloof, and passionate, Abdul leaves him in a state of miserable uncertainty. After a series of melodramas, one of them a savage beating by Baldy, the two move to a separate room. The bewildering hot and cold continue, with Malik’s confusion increasing when Abdul moves in a cousin, seemingly a threat to the affair. Not at all; Abdul plans to take Malik to Pakistan to live with him and his wife and be his in-house lover. The cousin is there as a rehearsal of the hoped-for domestic harem.

It is comic, outlandish, and oddly moving: crass and innocent at the same time. Tóibín, author of the immensely human “Brooklyn,’’ breaks into the preponderant chill of this collection, with a tale of gay love as tender as it is extravagant.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@

By Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 275 pp., $24