Book thoughts: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Okay, so I’m six years late to this, but as I’ve grown older (I’m 38 this year) some self-awareness has slowly dawned: it takes me time to do things.

I didn’t leave home or learn to drive until my mid-20s, despite those two things being almost sacrosanct for any coming-of-age Irish provincial-dweller with even a passing interest in the wider world. I first experienced the great cities of Europe at 26 (Madrid, Barcelona, Paris), later in life and for a much shorter stay than many contemporaries who made interrailing their summer at a time when I was scared of what the future held and thought that a holiday job, with the short-term, transient but undeniable security it offered, was the better course of action.

Despite many attempts I’ve never managed to keep a diary, so I can only try to recall the thought processes of my 21-year-old self – and that’s something, surely, that no-one can do with any great level of accuracy. Where I can recall things about myself with accuracy they relate invariably to external events: sports events and books.

How Croke Park's Canal End looked (Dublin v Donegal, 1992)

How Croke Park’s Canal End looked in the 1990s (Dublin v Donegal, 1992)

I recall (and apologies to any non-Irish readers for whom this may mean little) the euphoria of the old, now defunct Canal End at Croke Park as I stood – or, often, jumped around like a madman amongst thousands of other madmen – for the fourth Meath v Dublin game of the great Leinster Championship saga of 1991. Being part of that decade-long journey – from Meath’s All-Ireland final defeat to Cork in 1990 to victory over the same county at the same showpiece stage in 1999 – was something my teen and twentysomething self took absolutely for granted; I’ve realised in the years since then, by Meath’s own descent into Gaelic football oblivion and through meeting friends and colleagues from all over Ireland who openly envied our years of plenty, that I was among an intensely privileged few. I remember who I was back then, and what I felt, almost solely through the prism of that experience.

And likewise, books. While it is several years since I’ve read “Eveline”, one of the short stories in Joyce’s Dubliners, I recall having a profound sense of empathy with Eveline’s crisis. That fear, that inability to take the next onward step, that paralysis – it was something I recognised clearly in my 20-year-old self, although even that knowledge was not enough to dispel it, and I’ve carried it with me everywhere ever since, lurking somewhere just below the surface, always ready to raise its unwelcome head.

brooklyn-colm-toibinColm Tóibín’s Brooklyn won the Costa Novel award and was long-listed for the MAN Booker Prize in 2009. Tóibín has published a collection of short stories (The Empty Family) and two novels (The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster) since then, and I know I’ll get to them in time too. He is almost ubiquitous – while the Booker has so far eluded him, he is virtually ever-present on the awards and festivals circuits all over the world, and his radio interviews are almost as valuable as his works. He is one of those writers – Heaney was another – whose voice is so distinctive. Reading Heaney’s poems, you can hear them being read aloud in that beautiful soft Derry voice. Likewise with Tóibín: Brooklyn was akin to an author-read audio-book that auto-played in my head (and mercifully without the recurring monthly subscription).

What started out in this blog as an explanation of the delay in finally getting to Brooklyn owes much, I feel, to the thought strands activated by the book. The novel’s heroine is Eilis Lacey, a County Wexford girl who emigrates to New York in the 1950s. Other much more timely bloggers criticised Eilis’s passivity: the excellent John Self wrote that “her primary characteristic [is] of being utterly passive in her own destiny, so much so that at times the reader wants to shake her.”

Such passivity, though, is integral to the Irish lived experience of so many: my own indelible background is that of a rural Ireland surrounded by at least outwardly devout Catholics. Whether their struggle to take control of their destiny is a symptom of so-called “Catholic guilt” is open to debate, but in Eveline and Eilis, products of two great Irish writers a century apart, I see so much of myself. Perhaps that is what makes great writing great.

The blurbs at the time compared Eilis to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary and Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield – good for publicity but perhaps bad for posterity. There’s no doubt, however, that she is an exceptionally well drawn character. Her blossoming from putupon Enniscorthy girl to worldly and glamour city worker is brilliantly drawn over the course of just a couple of hundred pages (the book may be slight but it draws an entire world.

Eilis’s mother, Fr Flood, the Irish-American priest who makes Eilis’s move possible, Tony, her Brooklyn paramour, and his hardworking, ambitious Italian family, all offer depth to a brisk narrative, but just as important as characterisation is Tóibín’s mastery of the setpiece scene: the Friday night alcohol-free dance to raise funds for the Brooklyn parish hall and the first transatlantic crossing amid a terrible storm and a silent row over a shared bathroom are memorable, but the most moving was Christmas Day in Brooklyn, when Eilis, on her first Christmas away from home, volunteers to help two elderly unmarried Irish sisters and Fr Flood to cater for New York’s lost Irish with stout, soup, turkey, ham and trifle.

At first the men seemed shabby to Eilis and she noticed body odours from a good number of them. As they sat down and drank their stout waiting for their soup or the food, she could not believe there were so many of them, some of them so poor-looking and so old, but even the younger ones had bad teeth and appeared worn down. Many were still smoking, even as the soup came. She did her best to be polite to them.

She observed a change in them soon, however, as they began to talk to each other or shout greetings down the table or enter into low, intense conversations. At first they had reminded her of men who sat on the bridge in Enniscorthy or gathered at the seat at Arnold’s Cross or the Louse Bank by the Slaney, or men from the County Home, or men from the town who drank too much. But by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender.

A commenter all those years ago over on John Self’s Asylum blog, while admitting Brooklyn was wonderfully written, was unsure about why it was written.

If there is a why, to me the seven pages of this Christmas Day gathering, which bring to an end Part Two of the four-part book, is the nub of it. Whether the appeal translates globally is impossible to say, but Brooklyn offers so much which, while unspoken, is such an indelible part of Irish people’s backstory. It may be fiction, but as a document of social history, albeit just one representation of that history, it achieves the highest grade.

Update: Perhaps this blog is timely enough after all. I must have heard, but had forgotten, that Brooklyn has been adapted for film and having already premiered at Sundance Film Festival, is due in the cinemas later in November 2015. It will star Ireland’s two rising stars, Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and Nick Hornby has adapted the screenplay. An intriguing choice. Hornby is a fine writer of novels and screenplays, but so much of his work centres on his own north London milieu, as far as the crow can fly from Enniscorthy.

8 thoughts on “Book thoughts: Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

  1. Love this review, Shane. I read this book when it first came out and it really resonated with me — Toibin perfectly captured what it is like to be caught between two countries, of not knowing whether to stay or go. I had this paralysis for years, not knowing whether I should stay in the UK or go back home to Australia. Reading this book made me realise there was no “right” or “wrong” decision: whatever choice you make there will be pros and cons.

    1. Thanks Kim.

      It’s excellent. I’m not sure I fully captured how moving I found it – there were several instances when I was close to tears, particularly in that extended Christmas Day sequence in the parish hall. As an Irish male, the species subset for whom the 1950s, ’80s and 2008-2012 have been periods of mass dislocation, every line of that one reached somewhere deep inside.

      I did find one or two plot points a little mystifying, and not sure I’m looking forward to the movie, although the upsides are (a) Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan are excellent, and (b) the novel will get the movie tie-in sales “bounce”, which is never a bad thing.


  2. Shane, this is yet another book in my ‘meaning to get around to’ pile and having read your detailed post about it I have put it nearer the top of the pile. What a writer he is and I love the whole theme of ‘belonging,’ or not, as the case may be. As someone who never knew whether they came from Africa, Ireland or somewhere else I feel this could be a great read for me! An interesting post. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Justine.

      I think, given what you say above, that you’ll find Brooklyn really interesting. Come back and let us know how you get on (it’s a slim enough read, 200-odd pages and zippy narrative).


  3. I read it a few years ago and remembering thinking how ‘ordinary’ the story was, ie, shared by so many Irish who chose to go abroad, but Toibin’s beautiful prose just keeps you in Brooklyn. As you say, wonderfully captured details in certain scenes and I defy any reader to not empathise with Ellis as you obviously did. Lovely review. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for your excellent review. This is a superb novel. And I have seen the film today and loved that too.
    I am just writing a blog post about the strange habit I have of misremembering the ending. This happened to me with Brooklyn and I had to check the book to see whether the film makers had changed it. But no, it was me and my peculiar mind!

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