A mere muse today on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. It is described on the cover as “quietly magnificent”. Well, the prose is certainly restrained – as befits both the time period the story is set (Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s) and the protagonist, Eilis Lacey, through which everything is seen. I could quote from any page confident that the words would be quiet, simple, and measured. No surprise, then, that Brooklyn won the 2009 Costa Award, the more ‘accessible’ UK-based literary award. (It showcases what Stella Rimington might call ‘readability’!)
This is in no way meant to take away from Brooklyn which I found affecting. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it was the close third person narrative. Eilis lives at home with her elder sister, Rose, and her mother. Her father is dead and her older brothers are working in the north ofEngland. Rose’s job supports the three of them. Tóibín is not known for overtly comic writing, but there are moments of warmth and mirth here, such as Eilis’s descriptions of the local storekeeper in Enniscorthy, Mrs Kelly, which amuse her mother and Rose at dinner time.
But there are few opportunities for work for Eilis who has starting training as a bookkeeper, and few marriage prospects too. Step in an Irish priest visiting fromBrooklynwho knows Rose. He arranges a stateside job for Eilis in a shop, urging her to come ‘across the water’.
And so she goes. The easy ‘come across the water’ line sets us up for what is a terrible crossing with poor Eilis suffering from sea-sickness the whole way. She lives in an Irish boarding house in which she is a favourite of the land-lady, though she yearns for a more independent role in the household given her want to fit in with the other young woman living there. She goes to dances and meets Tony, an Italian-American, and finds a love of sorts with him. Then she is summoned back toIrelandafter a death and faces the choice between her old life and new. Coming home she finds her options have opened up. Coming from New Work she is touched by a certain glamour, and she has certainly experienced more of life living away from home.
It is a strange characteristic of Eilis that the decisions in her life are all made by others, be they Rose, Father Flood, the Irish girl she shares the Atlantic crossing with, her Irish land-lady. Writes Tóibín: “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.” She seems to go with the flow for the most of the novel. It is only at the end that this is challenged by events of her own making.
Brooklyn is a quiet and affecting story. Tóibín has a way of depicting the inner emotional terrain of a character with precision. I have lived overseas myself for several years and so I can relate to the opportunities and difficulties this creates in a person’s life. (Tóibín himself went to USA to lecture, bot at Stanford and now at Princeton, and has lived in other cities and travelled extensively.) It was nice to finally read something of Tóibín’s after he was so entertaining a guest at the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival, though I suspect I might enjoy The Master (2004) a touch more. Time will tell.
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)