Monday, March 27, 2017

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I only discovered Colm Toibin last year when I read his superb novel, The Master, a novel about the life of Henry James. In his short, exquisitely written 2009 novel, Brooklyn, he creates such a quiet masterpiece that the reader is left wondering at the end how he did it. This novel is about a young Irish girl who leaves her home in a small village to venture to Brooklyn. The girl, Eilis, has completed a course in bookkeeping and is known to have a good head for figures, but there is no work for her in the village in which she grows up.  Through the efforts of her older sister, Rose, and a Catholic priest who takes an interest in her, she books third class passage on a ship bound for New York where she will come of age isolated from the only people she knows. 

Eilis doesn’t really want to leave her mother and sister, and yet she would not dream of telling them that as it would appear that she is ungrateful for their attempts to give her a better life.
She has already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same size and age, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
The story of her voyage and the horrible seasickness that strikes all the third-class below-deck passengers, and of her eventual arrival at a boarding house run by a kindly Irish woman is so patiently and slowly told that is almost as if it is only between the lines that the reader learns of her terrible homesickness. Again, Eilis is unwilling and unable to express her loneliness even in letters home, since to do so would make her seem ungrateful for all that has been done for her. 
Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.
Already my rendering of the story is much more sentimental than Toibin’s. Even the pathos of the story is so patiently and quietly spun out and the language so plain and simple that the tremendous emotional effect comes almost as a surprise. 

Although the story develops very slowly, it does build to a kind of climax and with an element of mystery in it that I would not think of divulging to you. 

The only novel I can compare this with in terms of its quiet profundity is Julian Barnes’ masterpiece, The Sense of an Ending. Despite the loneliness and homesickness of Eilis, and the fears that lurk just below the surface, this is also an uplifting and positive work. In many ways a historical novel about old New York, I believe readers will remember it most for its intricate portrayal of a young woman caught between two worlds, or as The New Yorker put it in a review:
Toibin creates a narrative of remarkable power, writing with a spareness and intensity that give the minutest shades of feeling immense emotional impact…Purging the immigrant novel of all swagger and sentimentality, Toibin leaves us with a renewed understanding that to emigrate is to become a foreigner in two places at once.

This is probably the best book I have read so far this year, and I have read a lot of excellent novels. I think you will love it for its slow intensity and its intricate detail about a lived life.

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