Colm Tóibín — Brooklyn
As I read the last 50 pages or so of Brooklyn, the new novel by twice Booker-shortlisted author Colm Tóibín, my face slowly contorted into what I can only describe as a grimace. I don’t know if this was the reaction Tóibín was hoping for. But at times this book resembles cringe-comedy, as the squirming reader is forced to watch a painfully naive heroine, Eilis Lacey, glide passively towards a horribly awkward dilemma.
We meet Eilis as a young woman living with her mum in 1950s Enniscorthy, Ireland: a close-knit village community where Eilis expects to see out her days. She’d like a boyfriend, but the only plausible candidate — Jim Farrell — won’t speak to her. But then Eilis’s mother conspires with an Irish emigrant priest, Father Flood, to make arrangements for Eilis to leave it all behind and take up a job in Brooklyn, New York. We follow her across the stormy Atlantic, and watch as she settles into a new life in a strange new city. Before long, she finds new love with a new man: Tony, or, to use his full, dangerously exotic name, Antonio.
This accounts for the bulk of what, at 250 pages, is ultimately a modest addition to Tóibín’s oeuvre. It could hardly be more different from The Master (2004), Tóibín’s grim portrait of Henry James, an ambitious work of unrelenting intensity propelled by a storm of authentic, close-up turmoil. Tóibín never gets under the skin of Eilis, who remains a distant, hazy figure, pushed this way and that by events beyond her control. Brooklyn is not the story of what she does — it’s the story of what happens to her.
Just as Eilis’s relationship with Tony reaches a dramatic new level of intimacy, Eilis learns that she must briefly return to Enniscorthy following a family tragedy. Predictably, Jim Farrell swoops into action, and it all gets terribly soap-operaish as Eilis must pick a vertex from her transatlantic love polygon. It’s a final section that feels a little rushed — verging on contrived, in fact — but never mind.
Brooklyn is not a necessary book: there’s no sense that Tóibín had to write it, or that I had to read it. It feels more like a charming little story to pass the time on a train or a plane. But Tóibín’s laconic, measured prose is delightful, and the novel is touching in its portrayal of the strange contingencies that shape our lives, and in its evocation of the jolting, painful experience of cultural dislocation.