Thursday, July 2, 2009
Between Two Worlds: Colm Toibin's 'Brooklyn'
BROOKLYN is Colm Toibin’s follow up to his novel The Master in which he imagined the final years of the life of Henry James. Some people have compared its main character, Eilis Lacey, with James’ Isobel Archer (Portrait of a Lady). Toibin completed an intense amount of research for his novel about James, and it seems he is still in a Jamesian frame of mind. Both Isobel and Eilis operate in a society in which they feel inhibited for various reasons, and suffer a conflict between duty and personal freedom. Brooklyn begins in Enniscorthy Co. Wexford, 1950’s provincial Ireland, where the local talent is uninspiring and the best thing Eilis can find to keep busy and contribute to life is to sell food items in Miss Kelly’s corner shop. This work is horribly limiting: “That bread there is the freshest. It came yesterday evening all the way from Stafford’s, but it is only for special customers. So you don’t touch that bread whatever you do. The other bread’ll do fine for most people. And we have no tomatoes. Those ones there are not for anybody, unless I give precise instructions.”
It is doubtful that Toibin would construct a whole novel around a heroine who must wait on instructions regarding the sale of tomatoes. So it is no surprise that Father Flood recognises something else in Eilis and encourages her to live in Brooklyn for the chance of a fuller, more meaningful life. The horrible voyage over would suggest that Eilis isn’t up to it. She is too timid to complain about a locked bathroom and a strong contrast is made with her room partner Georgina, who is cocky and self assured: “The bastards! ...watch me dealing with them.”
The rest of the book deals with Eilis’ life in Brooklyn and her unexpected and unwanted recall home to Enniscorthy to comfort her mother. The ending of the novel, and Eilis’ decision to return to America or spend time comforting her needy mother, is crucial to our understanding of how far she has come. She makes the decision that is best for her, at the same time honouring an important promise. Meanwhile she has experienced a number of things that reinforce our understanding of Eilis as a gutsy heroine. She meets Tony and later takes a considerable risk in engaging in sex with him in a conservative boarding house she is renting, that operates under strict house rules. She has a brief, flirtatious relationship with a local when she is back in Ireland and undecided about where her future lies. And she deals admirably with Miss Kelly when she sees her again at the end of the novel, when Miss Kelly is full of disdain and gossip about her knowledge of Eilis’ secret Brooklyn past: “Oh, don’t try and fool me!” Miss Kelly said. “You can fool most people, but you can’t fool me.”
Toibin captures the subtle changes in Eilis brilliantly, as she returns to her roots. She is now far more sophisticated both in her manner and in her clothes, but not arrogantly so. It is just that people notice her more. She has become glamorous. She learns a lot in America, both in her warm relationship with Tony and his family and in her selfless repaying of debt to Father Flood. Brooklyn is far less stifling in its scope and level of opportunity. Eilis is even confronted with a potential lesbian encounter that Toibin couldn’t resist including, as she is fitted somewhat eagerly for a new bathing suit. It is in fact possibly the only false note in the whole novel.
Tony is the second most important character. He is simple but very caring and supportive, baseball- mad and deeply Italian. He finds Eilis sexually alluring, but waits patiently and has his moment with her well after their relationship has been cemented. All he asks for is a future with her and hopefully some kids.
Father Flood is also virtuous and without any of the vices of a clichéd priest. Andrew O’Hagan created an equally memorable priest in ‘Be Near Me’. Toibin’s priest is much more old fashioned and simple and fits perfectly with the time.
This novel reminds me, in its prose, of The Heather Blazing, more than any of Toibin’s other novels. We discover only the bare essentials about people and setting and the narrative is driven slowly and smoothly throughout and it is a book that is best read in one or two sittings to appreciate the beautiful mood that is created. The second half of the novel is the best. In my edition (Scribner), the exact half way point is on page 131, and it is here that Tony is first introduced, sizing up Eilis at a local dance hall. This is the moment in which Eilis truly comes into her own, as she begins making decisions that will enrich her life, instead of being too anxious about doing the right things by others.
Toibin has said, in an interview with Robert McCrum, how he became ‘mildly obsessed with extracting the maximum effect from the minimum of prose.’
Christopher Tayler of The Guardian has noted that Toibin’s ‘…plain style is unostentatious even in its plainness, avoiding musical balance but also taking care not to seem mannered or excessively clipped.’
Colm Toibin has also talked about how difficult it was to create one of the passages in the novel, an experience that has occurred in the writing of two previous novels. Writing in such a deceptively simple way is extremely difficult. It is getting towards the extremely pared back style of Raymond Carver, which is even more difficult to achieve. How different to Zoe Heller, who on the back of the Scribner edition says Toibin has created a ‘beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn.’
Reading fiction by Colm Toibin is incredibly rewarding and luxuriating. It forces you to rest and breathe. And Eilis is another character, like Henry James in The Master, who is painted with beautiful subtlety and with immense psychological insight:
“She discovered a vantage point from where, unless he looked directly upwards and to the left, he would not see her. He was, she thought, unlikely to look in her direction as he seemed absorbed by the students coming and going in the lobby. When she directed her gaze down she saw that he was not smiling; he seemed nonetheless fully at ease and curious. There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness, she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but made that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow of nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear, and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.”