A detour from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to Brooklyn, Colm Toibin’s much praised and award-winning novel (I think I’m right in saying it was the novel most chosen as Book of the Year at the end of 2009). Such raised expectations often lead to disappointment, and so it proved. The prose seemed strangely flat and styleless (and from an Irish writer as well!), the central character opaque, and the plot a series of teases. However, the more I’ve reflected on it, the more impressed I’ve become with the novel, seeing choices where I once saw weaknesses.
Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish girl, Eilis, who lives with her mother and older sister, Rose, in a small village in Ireland. Toibin uses the novel’s opening to demonstrate the limited opportunities open to her: a part-time job in the local shop working for the snobbish Miss Kelly, and the contempt of local lads like Jim Farrell whose superiority rests on his father’s ownership of a pub. Her mother and sister arrange with a visiting priest, Father Flood, that Eilis go to America for the chance of a better life. From the first mention of this, it is clear that the decision has been taken for her:
“In the silence that lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.”
Both the crossing and Eilis’ initial loneliness are convincingly portrayed. This loneliness is dissipated when she begins seeing an Italian American, Tony, who is kind and affectionate; the relationship progressing gradually until the sudden death of Rose and Eilis’ decision to return home to see her mother. Tony insists that they secretly marry first as he fears (rightly) that she may not return.
My initial dissatisfaction with Brooklyn probably originated with the tricks which Toibin plays on his reader with regard to plot. Throughout the novel he frequently gives the impression that it is heading in a particular direction only for that plot-line to fizzle out and never reach the firework stage. This can be seen in the way that the most intriguing characters, like Rose and Frankie (Tony’s brother), feature the least. A specific example would be Rosenblum, Eilis’ teacher in America, who we learn is a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany:
“The Germans killed everyone belonging to him, murdered every one of them, but we got him out, at least we did that, we got Joshua Rosenblum out.”
Rosenblum, however, is never mentioned again; indeed, the whole plot-line of Eilis’ evening classes comes to nothing. In many ways Toibin is playing with expectations created by literature: for example, Tony and Eilis sleep together after Rose’s death, but Eilis doesn’t fall pregnant and have to marry him, a staple of so many books before. This happens so often, however, it can lead to a constant feeling of anti-climax. Toibin is clearly more interested in verisimilitude than drama.
Eilis herself can seem a disappointing protagonist. Her journey to America is not the only time she does not seem in control of her destiny. Her relationship with Tony seems almost entirely based on what he feels for her – at most she feels a “great tenderness” towards him. When he tells her about the land his family have bought and the house that will be theirs, it simply says she “watched him carefully”
“She was almost in tears at what he was proposing and how practical he was as he spoke and how serious and sincere.”
Her own feelings (the ‘tears’) are vague; the focus is on Tony, whose tone, as much as anything, is causing her emotional response. Her later attraction to Jim Farrell seems equally based on his treatment of her:
“…she liked his bulky, easygoing presence and the tone in his voice, which came so naturally from the streets of the town. He had clear blue eyes, she thought, that saw no harm in anything. And she was fully aware that these blue eyes of his lingered on her now with an interest that was unmistakeable.”
Yet if Eilis’ passion is not what we would expect of literature, it is what we might reasonably expect of life, particularly from a young Irish girl of the 1950s. Ultimately we feel sympathy for her not simply because she is not allowed to make a choice, but because, deep down, she doesn’t seem to feel that her life is one where choices are possible. It is the very ordinariness of Brooklyn that is moving.