Book Review: The Dead, James Joyce; The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín

A pair of Irishmen made up my reads this past week… just in time for St. Pat’s. Sláinte, gentlemen. I’ll toast you with a draught Guinness tonight at Kell’s. Long may your stories endure.

The  Dead (The Art of the Novella Series)The Dead by James Joyce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Volumes of literary analysis proclaim The Dead as the perfect short story. The instructor of a short-story writing workshop I recently attended made the same assertion. He admonished our gathering to read The Dead as soon as possible and to reread it at least once a year, as an example of writing at its most sublime.

Hyperbole? I don’t know that it matters. It moved me to tears.

I knew nothing of the story, nor have I read Joyce beyond an aborted attempt a dozen years ago at “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I expected to slog through complicated language and dry prose.

Instead I slipped quietly in the door of an early 20th century Dublin home, as an unseen guest at a party held by two aging aunts for their petite bourgeoisie friends and family. The scene unfolds gently, in the glow of the Epiphany and lantern light. There is dancing, drinking, feasting, a few social gaffes…It is the latter where Joyce balances on the razor’s edge between social satire and devastatingly keen observation.

This seemingly innocuous setting has aching scenes of lust, love, and longing. In a few short paragraphs, Joyce shows a marriage laid bare, infected by disillusionment and disappointment; it is as honest a portrayal of modern love as any I have read. It is a moment of self-awareness and revelation of perception that we would do well to hope never happens to us. Ignorance is bliss.

The Empty Family: StoriesThe Empty Family: Stories by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colm Tóibín has a breathtaking range, from the modern Irish voice in The Blackwater Lightship to Henry James’s cultured and tortured 19th century tones in The Master to an immigrant naïf coming of age in 1950’s Brooklyn. His writing is exquisite, resonant, and pure. He writes with incredible compassion for his characters, but allows them to fail of their own accord. He shows the reader the beauty of imperfection.

This latest collection of stories The Empty Family was a mixed bag for me. The theme of returning from or entering into exile appears in most of the stories. The characters are seeking redemption or facing rejection as they return to familiar places or attempt to settle into new lands. Yet, as someone who has moved hither and yon, across borders and languages, I felt oddly distanced by some of Tóibín’s stories, including those that seemed the most personal.

Most touching were The Colour of Shadows, where a middle-aged man returns to his small Irish hometown to place his aunt in managed care; Two Women, which features a famous, aging set designer who returns to Ireland after nearly a lifetime away and confronts the ghosts of a past love (pages I will reread in months to come as an example of a perfectly rendered short story); Silence for which Tóibín again assumes the narrative voice of a 19th century writer; and One Minus One, where the main character relives the days before his mother’s funeral. Confronting one’s mortality in the face of aging relatives and wistfully remembered love affairs resonate deeply in Tóibín’s tender prose.

A few stories, including the long Barcelona, 1975 and the longer The Street were perfectly written and captured my attention, but not my heart. These featured, at times, careless love, passionless sex, obsession, and the ugliest of human behavior that elicited neither sympathy nor outrage, just exasperation and contempt.

Tóibín is one of my favorite writers. He writes humanity with such clarity; man, woman, gay, straight, modern and of the ages- he speaks their Babel of languages as well as any native. He seems to embrace life with ferocity, but also holds Death closer than arm distance, accepting its inevitability with equal passion. How very Irish of him.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dead, James Joyce; The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín

    • Thank you, my friend. I know, right? I was so surprised. Might have to give longer Joyce another go.

      I had to edit my post. I can’t “lay” or “lie” straight to save my life. 😉


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