Friday, 19 August 2011

The Empty Family, Colm Toibin and Touchy Subjects, Emma Donoghue. Review by Sophie Long

On paper, Colm Toibin and Emma Donoghue are writers working very much in the same style. Both were born and educated in Ireland, both have lived and worked in the US and both have written a collection of short stories spanning these two countries. In practice however, these two authors could not be more different.

Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family has proved to be a challenging one for me both to read and to review. As a student of creative writing, these stories break almost all of the rules that have been almost relentlessly drummed into me. From sentences that are longer than two lines to graphic sexual descriptions, these things made this book extremely difficult to read with an open mind, and I had formed an unfavourable opinion of it within the first few pages.

However, perhaps the ‘rules’ are different for the more experienced. Under a more practised hand, what I saw as broken rules might in fact be the very best way of telling a story. So, I tried to stop isolating what I saw as negative points and consider them as part of the whole narrative. Did they work in the context of the story? For the most part the answer was yes. For example, the sexual content in 'Barcelona, 1975' might be eye-wateringly graphic, but the main character is a man discovering and testing his own and society’s boundaries. The bedroom is somewhere that this character can discover things about himself and the people around him, somewhere where every action, however small, can carry great meaning and consequence. In which case, the detail is important.

In Emma Donoghue’s Touchy Subjects, the themes are ostensibly the same – significant moments in human life. However, while Toibin’s characters are looking back on life changing moments in their own lives, for Donoghue’s characters, these moments are taking place, the characters reacting as their lives turn on often the tiniest of moments. This gives the stories in Touchy Subjects an immediacy and vibrancy that is necessarily lacking in the reminiscing style of The Empty Family.

Touchy Subjects also displays a wildly varied cast of characters, a born-again Christian, a woman who lies about being pregnant and a man donating sperm to his wife’s best friend. These characters are unusual in their actions, but Donoghue’s easy and unassuming prose makes them likeable and intriguing, as though we are reading about an old friend. In The Empty Family, Toibin’s characters speak through bleak but often highly symbolic language, making them a puzzling read, one where the reader is given nothing and must guess at everything. These characters are not easy to relate to, and they like it that way.

Where Touchy Subjects invites the reader in, The Empty Family leaves them to peer through the keyhole. Where characters in the latter are looking back, those in the former are experiencing, doing, feeling. Both styles are valid and both are equally strong in the way they invite us to watch the most intimate actions of their character’s lives.

These collections are well worth a read, but it is perhaps the interesting, immediate, person-next-door characters and stories of Touchy Subjects that have made the most lasting impression on me. I did not know enough about the characters in The Empty Family to allow me to feel close to them.

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Watch this space... upcoming editor blog, 'Goodness Gracious Me! Wake up to Wales, Radio Four!' (review of radio adaptation of Jasper Rees' Bred in Heaven) and 'Coming of Age for all ages', teenage fiction recommendations

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