"I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on this old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky."So begins "The Empty Family", title story in Colm Toibin's latest collection. It's about a homecoming of sorts, but the wistful, contemplative story actually reads more like a letter to an old lover "You must know that I am back here." After an extended stay in California, the writer has returned to a beloved seaside home in Ireland. A walk to the strand leads to a chance encounter with his ex's brother and sister-in-law, and an offer to try the telescope they use to watch the sea.
"It came to me that the sea is not a pattern, it is a struggle. Nothing matters against the fact of this. The waves were like people battling out there, full of consciousness and will and destiny and an abiding sense of their own beauty."I was, as always, struck by the beauty of Toibin's writing and felt myself being carried away by his prose. At this point, the story turned into a meditation on life:
"It [the wave] had an elemental hold; it was something coming towards us as though to save us but it did nothing instead, it withdrew in a shrugging irony, as if to suggest that this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing on a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a brave burst of unknowing energy."
"And all that I have in the meantime is this house, this light, this freedom, and I will, if I have the courage, spend my time watching the sea, noting its changes and the sounds it makes, studying the horizon, listening to the wind or relishing the calm when there is no wind. I will not fly even in my deepest dreams too close to the sun or too close to the sea. The chance for all of that has passed."Other stories by this author have had much more in the way of plot but, in this case, the words and language seemed to be enough. I will be curious to see if "The Empty Family" is representative of the entire collection.
Irish Short Story Week, hosted at The Reading Life, runs from March 12-22.