Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

21 April 2010
Parts 1 and 2
Toibin is doing something really impressive in this novel – but, nearly 100 pages in, I’m not sure why he’s doing it. Here he is, an Irishman in his mid-50s, offering us a faultless evocation of the life of a young woman. He’s set it at around the time, and in precisely the place, where he was born – so if he was a different novelist he could whisk us away from the events in Eilis’s life and over to a maternity hospital where the writer himself is about to be born…. Plenty of writers might do something like that, but not this one: the point of view is with Eilis from the start, and that’s where it’s staying. Don’t get me wrong: the technique is perfect. But… but what? Is it really any more than a virtuoso display of craftsmanship? And what’s wrong with a bit of perfect craftsmanship anyway? Hmmm.

One of his techniques is to make us find things out slowly. He’s with Eilis from the beginning, looking up from her book-keeping homework at her sister arriving home…. Over the next 20 or 30 pages, through a number of scenes – house, shop, dance-hall – we find out how things work here. This house of women used to have men in it – father dead, brothers forced to work in England, so we must be in the second half of the 20th Century – and, because this is Ireland, times are hard and jobs are scarce…. There’s a pecking order in the town, and snobbery to go with it, but it’s all a bit pathetic: the ones highest up it seem to be shopkeepers or pub landlords. And there’s nothing for a girl to look forward to but a job, if she’s lucky, and then marriage. Toibin lets these rigid facts of life emerge through the conversations we hear and from Eilis’s thoughts as she ponders her own future. She can’t survive on an underpaid Sunday job in one of the local shops, although Eilis never lets herself think this in so many words. But others are thinking out her future on her behalf….

About 30 pages in, it turns out that the task Toibin must have set himself in Part 1 is to tell us all we need to know about the place Eilis is soon going to leave. A Brooklyn priest, originally from Ireland, suggests that a job in the USA might be just the thing – and almost before she realises what’s happening, Eilis has agreed and is signing the papers the priest has conjured up. This is a world in which it really means something to be a Catholic priest in New York. And as to why he does it… we don’t know, because Eilis doesn’t. We might guess: it’s to do with the fun of exercising influence because you can, of having people around you who feel a sense of gratitude and obligation. In Part 2 , once Eilis has got to Brooklyn, he thinks nothing of asking her to sacrifice the whole of Christmas day for one of his good causes – another of those selfless acts of charity he does that won’t do his reputation any harm at all.

I don’t know if I’m being cynical about his motives, because such speculations don’t fall within the scope of Eilis’s consciousness. But the motive of a different character does impinge: Eilis realises just before she leaves that her sister has conspired with the priest to sort out her future – and in so doing has sacrificed her own. By sending Eilis away she, the glamorous, capable one, will have to remain at home, unmarried, in order to look after their mother.

Before we get to Brooklyn there’s another of Toibin’s painstaking evocations: the first 24 hours of life in a third-class berth on an Atlantic liner. For pages we get the kind of insider information you get in one of those Radio 4 programmes based on archive interviews. It’s interesting, just as the details of the small Irish town are interesting. Toibin can’t describe everything in Eilis’s life, so he tends to spend five or ten pages on a single day, often the first day of something new. In Ireland we got the first day of Eilis’s job in the shop; in Brooklyn we get, er, the first day of Eilis’s job in a different shop. Or we get special days: the unannounced sale day in the shop, or the charity Christmas lunch complete with old Irishmen and their old Irish songs. Or we get scene-setting details of the women-only boarding house, the women-only shop-floor, the crush of Brooklyn streets making Eilis think, at first, that there must be a fight nearby.

And I’ve just remembered another first day: when homesickness strikes. Three letters have arrived together – mother, sister, favourite brother – and she’s so debilitated by the feelings that hit her it causes a big stir at work. Toibin wants us to understand how precarious life was for a woman two generations ago: her female supervisors are sympathetic – but they let her know that such behaviour won’t be tolerated a second time. It’s all completely believable… and still we wonder why we’re reading about it. I wonder if Eilis is based on somebody in Toibin’s own family, an aunt perhaps. We live in a culture in which the emigrant experience is – forgive me – fashionable. If Toibin can only get our consciousness inside that of a woman living over half a century ago, well, how good would that be? Well?

24 April
Part 3, as far as Jack’s letter
20 pages from the end of Part 3, but it seems a good place to stop and have a look around. Part 3 is longer than the first two parts together, and Toibin’s technique doesn’t change much – until he lobs in the cataclysm of Rose’s unexpected death. It’s an Escher’s Balcony moment: M C Escher has a lithograph of a hillside of buildings rising up squarely in the frame – but the balcony in the centre swells out impossibly towards us, as though the room behind it is being inflated like a balloon. Long before Rose’s death, we’ve seen Eilis anticipating her second year unfolding predictably season by season, just like the first – but now any of life’s regularity is distorted out of all recognition.

As soon as it happens we realise it’s all up for Eilis now. I was surprised that she doesn’t see it immediately: if there’s no Rose to look after Mammy, who will have to do it instead? None of the boys, obviously – this is the 1950s, after all – so, equally obviously, it’ll have to be Eilis. She finally realises this when Jack’s letter spells it out: he doesn’t know about her, but there’s absolutely no way any of her brothers can just drop everything. It’s one of the neatest things in the book so far: Jack’s simple assumption, in the middle of his eloquently understated description of the funeral, that Eilis will step in.

Now, she’s on her way (I think) to talk to Tony. What’s she going to tell him? That it’s all over between them? Mammy won’t be coming to Brooklyn and, surely, he won’t simply drop his American Dream plans of going into the house-building business with those likeable brothers of his. Will he? Or is the photo on the front of the book a clue? It shows a man and a woman looking backwards from the stern of a ship…. We’ve seen a lot of acts of common humanity in this novel, especially (now I think of it) from men, and maybe this will be another one. Could he possibly drop everything, in the way her brothers aren’t going to do? Maybe. There wouldn’t be much in it for her brothers – what red-blooded 50s bloke is going to go home to look after Mammy? – but Tony would have a wife, and he has a skill, as Toibin has been at pains to establish. But, shit, a whole new life in Ireland away from his family and – infinitely more of a wrench, as Toibin has equally been at pains to establish – his beloved Dodgers?

We’ve had over 70 pages of Part 3 before we reach this crisis. Toibin takes us through, I think, about a year and a half of Eilis’s life. He uses the same technique as in Part 1 in Ireland: set-piece scenes in which a single important day sets up a new phase – the dance where Tony first introduces himself, the conversation with the Jewish law teacher, the first time at Coney Island beach – and, between these, a few paragraphs to describe how the pattern of days and weeks carries on from then on. It’s the regular pattern, as in Escher’s picture, the one he’s going to distort out of any recognisable shape so that nothing will ever be straightforward again. And if this all sounds a bit calculating, well, that’s how it feels. The copy I’m reading has testimonials all over it. I think variations of the word ‘humane’ are used most, alongside Antiques Roadshow terms: ‘brilliant achievement’, ‘beautifully executed’: we’re down to the craft of writing again.

Humanity. People rubbing up against one another and being humane. Or just human: like the clever Jewish exile and his impossibly erudite law lectures to book-keeping students; the house-mates who are small-minded about the new girl who isn’t good enough for them or about why Eilis might have been given the best room; the female work colleague who’s much too interested for comfort in the sensual roundness of Eilis’s body as she tries on the swimsuits the colleague has cleverly found for her. It’s a kind of layering: as in Parts 1 and 2, we get plausible details of everyday life that make it easy to believe in this reconstruction of a lost world. Details not of 50s brands or styles – although there’s the occasional hint of these – but of behaviour, attitudes. Single women are like this, Italian men are like this, we think of ‘coloured people’ like this. And as Eilis learns, so do we. It’s interesting, although I’m not sure it’s a lot more than that.

What’s missing? For a start, the life of the emotions. This central section of the novel is where Eilis discovers love, and Toibin is at pains to make her slow acceptance of Tony as realistic as he can. Tony makes the running, having singled her out for his attention even before she first notices him. She’s always a step behind – now I think about it, she seems a step behind in whatever she does – and when he makes it clear he’s expecting her to say she loves him she’s not ready. But then she is, and slips comfortably into that undemonstrative kind of love that middle-aged people talk about. Plenty of readers will recognise it, and it becomes another item on the list of what makes this novel appear so ‘humane’. This is how ordinary people really connect, we think. Fine.

But… there is absolutely no sense of Eilis’s sexual awakening. Toibin, the perfect craftsman amongst novelists, goes no further into her interior life than Eilis would herself. And she’s a respectable 1950s woman: she wouldn’t dream of it. In the sea, when she feels Tony’s erection against her own body it is – after months – the first mention of anything physical. (I was reminded of the scene in Part 2 when a colleague asks if Eilis’s apparent sickness at work is to do with ‘the time of the month’. Up to that point Eilis is, to all intents and purposes, asexual.) It’s an aspect of life Toibin chooses not to include in the usual run of things, and we’re almost as surprised when it does raise its ugly head, so to speak, as Eilis’s mother would be if she mentioned it in a letter. Toibin, deliberately or not, sets himself very rigid parameters. Like, when she and Tony have been going out for months nobody – neither Toibin nor Eilis herself – mentions anything that might bring a blush to anybody’s cheek. He describes the colleague’s sly stroking of her buttocks almost with embarrassment, as something Eilis would never be able to mention. You bet.

What’s my complaint, exactly? That Toibin isn’t a different novelist, one who really knows what it’s like for a young woman to go through the first sensual flowerings of experience (or whatever)? Maybe – and I know how pointless it is to think like that. But… but but but. All the convincing details – the genuine-sounding cattiness of women, the humanity of a truly good parish priest, the heart-warming welcome given by the family in the two-room apartment – don’t amount to enough. It’s like putting a painting by Jack Vettriano next to one by Edward Hopper… except at least Vettriano shows you what things used to look like; Toibin’s shows us nothing, and has his characters wandering around a Brooklyn in which absolutely nothing is mentioned of topography, architecture, advertising, the colours of things. Toibin doesn’t do visual, so maybe an art analogy isn’t very useful. Never mind, time for the rest of part 3.

24 April, later
To the end of Part 3
I didn’t like this at all, and not because all my predictions turned out to be wrong. I’m used to that. What we get to start with is Eilis and Tony’s first shag. It’s awful, and I don’t only mean that Eilis finds it painful and alienating. I’m sure, as with the unspectacular onset of what she assumes to be love, it might be familiar to a lot of readers, and therefore categorised as humane in its understanding. Yawn. I just found it robotic, focusing on the anatomical details of penetration and missing out absolutely everything else. It isn’t a sensual experience – it isn’t even a sensory experience in any meaningful way – it’s just an uncomfortable invasion of Eilis’s personal space. So to speak.

And Toibin does nothing with the psychology of the hours and minutes leading up to it. Eilis has suffered a recent trauma, has received a letter designed to induce maximum guilt and is – I’m guessing – bewildered enough to wander across the city in the middle of the night to find Tony. She ends up, presumably, seeking some kind of comfort or solace in sex – but if there’s a tumult of confused emotion Toibin isn’t going to tell us about it. A leads to B leads to C for coupling, copulation, cock…. Robotic.

After that… not a lot. Does Eilis get pregnant? Nope. Does she decide to step in to fill Rose’s shoes as their mother’s carer? Nope. Toibin turns down the emotional heat almost to ‘off’ as she passes her exams, gets the promise of a better job at the big store where she works, buys a ticket for Ireland – a return ticket. The Escher’s Balcony moment has turned out to have been no such thing, just another event for this infuriatingly passive woman to deal with. And I’ve just realised why I got it wrong about Eilis having to go to Ireland for good: it’s the only time Eilis doesn’t go along with what a bloke suggests. There’s a dangerous moment – before she goes to fetch Tony – but by going along with his wishes she makes it less likely that she’ll act according to the wishes of her brother. It’s no accident on Toibin’s part, surely, that following this moment it never occurs to her that she’ll live anywhere other than Brooklyn.

Tony suggests a civil marriage before she leaves – a suggestion she goes along with, following her usual habit when men want her to do something. It’s as though he can see better than she can the pressure she’ll be under to stay in Ireland, and he wants insurance against it. And, unless Toibin is hiding something from us (he might be), their farewells are as chaste as most of their relationship so far.

25 April
Part 4 – to the end
I found this section a misery from start to finish. Toibin uses the trick of having Eilis do things we are likely to recognise as plausible – the way she always quietly goes along with other people’s suggestions, the way she puts difficulties out of her mind – and stretches them beyond all credibility. Not long ago I was calling her infuriatingly passive, and Part 4 strengthens this impression. Another bloke leads her down a particular path, and Eilis is so taken with him she contemplates bigamy, or a quickie divorce at a time when everybody knows such things didn’t exist. She’s still inhabiting the same planet she was on when she had sex not only without precautions but without even the ghost of a concern that there might be consequences. In the 1950s? Come on.

She sort of doesn’t mean to do things – this is the recognisable aspect of behaviour that Toibin puts all his faith into in Part 4 – but she does, simply by letting them happen and putting off anything uncomfortable. So she’s already, obviously, neglected to mention to anybody the existence of a boyfriend, never mind a loving husband…. And she has her photo taken with the new bloke, lets him take her out – sleepwalks her way into a real relationship with him. Meanwhile, because she’s hasn’t got a thought in her pretty little head she neglects to open Tony’s letters, neglects to write to him, allows the memory of him to fade into a sort of dream. I wanted to slap her.

I also wanted to slap Colm Toibin, because he’s the one making her behave in this preposterous way. Ok, it isn’t inconceivable for a young woman to do any of the sorts of things Eilis does in these pages but, shit, all of them? I felt I’d been locked inside the consciousness of an idiot and was having to undergo the tortures she’d set up for herself. I didn’t want to be there and I was very glad when the stupid cow is forced – after Toibin has to resort to an omniscient deus ex machina in the form of her busybody ex-boss – to cut and run.

She feels terrible about leaving Mammy – or she feels terrible about finally having to tell Mammy the truth – but even now Toibin turns the heat down on the crisis: her mother is stoical to the point of martyrdom, and all Eilis needs to do is concentrate on her packing. Yep, that’s about as far as the horizons stretch in this bloody novel, as she comforts herself in the knowledge that in a fairly short time the consequences of her recent appalling behaviour will seem as unreal as Brooklyn does now. What is she, some kind of sociopath? It would explain a lot – but an exploration of her moral anomie belongs to a more penetrating author than Toibin appears to be. All we get are scenes from a life, episodes, one after the other. Maybe it would work better as a film, in the style of someone like Terence Davies. In cinema, you can get away without an exploration of characters’ interior lives if your actors are good enough. But, after all this time, I haven’t the faintest clue about who Eilis is, only a list of what she’s done. And it’s just not interesting.

27 April
I found a website (The Irish Times book group) in which Toibin answers questions about the novel. For me, part of one reply reveals a lot about his method:

My job was to make every detail true, or to seem true, and to work on the rhythms of the sentences so that I am hitting spaces within the readers’ nervous systems. It is a book filled with silences, and I was manipulating those silences and trying to integrate them into the style of the book, so in that sense I was working too hard and concentrating too much to be bothered about anything at all other than the next sentence and the last one.

This begins to explain why I find so uninvolving. Toibin’s concentration on detail – his word, as well as mine, right from the start – leads to the kind of surface perfection everybody seems to love. Some moments in this novel are flawless jewels, in which we can’t disagree with his precise (and, obviously, ‘humane’) observation of something or other.

In the same Q&A session he compares himself with Jane Austen and Henry James: the rudeness of the young man at the dance (the same bloke she fancies when she returns to Ireland) is, he tells us, an echo of Darcy’s in P&P; the ending of the novel is open, he says, like the end of Portrait of a Lady. You wish. Novels aren’t made of details without something more involving than empty silences to link them – and without a true sense that the author has an opinion of his heroine that the heroine might not really like to hear. Austen lets us know all the time what she thinks of Elizabeth, or Emma in a different novel (I could go on); James is constantly inviting us to speculate what on earth Isabel Archer – ‘our heroine’, he often calls her – is thinking of in Portrait. What do we get in Brooklyn? A follows B follows C, and Toibin leaves the reader to piece together such tiresome matters as motivation and consistency. It’s a tricky technique to get right, and for me, Toibin doesn’t get it right once. I never believe in an interior life.

27 June
Postscript 2
Two months since I read it, and a recent conversation has made me wonder why almost everybody loves this book when I find it, basically, silly. Only two other people I know find it as uninvolving as I do, and I think I might finally have worked out what we don’t like. Toibin has created a character who feels things intensely – and, every single time, the intensity takes her completely by surprise. The first one is physical: seasickness. The next is emotional: homesickness. She doesn’t feel anything much during Tony’s courtship of her, so the next one is physical again: the pain of sex. These are her learning experiences. There are others along the way, but they are understated. She doesn’t quite like the second-rate behaviour of some of the other women in her lodging-house. She doesn’t quite like the way her colleague admires and strokes her as she tries on swimwear. She does rather like the Irish singing at Christmas. And so on.

The sensibility is exactly like a child’s. In fact, everything that happens in the novel, up to and including the sex with Tony, presents Eilis as a bright 12-year-old in an adult’s body. (Isn’t there a scene in the Tom Hanks film Big that takes place in Coney Island?) That’s why everything comes as a surprise: nothing in her 12 Eilis-years has prepared her for anything that happens to her. And, yes, I do know she was brought up in an Ireland in which any talk of anything was taboo, that her existence was closed in by antediluvian attitudes. But current novelists too often rely on the myth that the past is another country – H E Bates has a lot to answer for – and nothing accounts for the tabula rasa that is the extent of Eilis’s social development.

Seen this way, it’s no wonder she doesn’t understand how Tony is manipulating her into saying she loves him. (A different novelist – that longed-for entity – would have had fun with his selfish motives.) It’s no wonder she doesn’t know what love is, and thinks the thin gruel of her own response is somehow her own fault. It’s no wonder that she always behaves like a good 12-year-old when anybody asks her to do anything, because she has no ideas about what to do except comply.

Then Toibin plays a trick on us. He gets her back to Ireland, and suddenly her two years in Brooklyn are made to count for something. She’s blossomed (a word I don’t think he uses, but somebody might), and I’m thinking, Oh yeh? When? Name me one thing she’s learnt beyond a better dress-sense and double-entry book-keeping. And I’m right: she carries on behaving like a 12-year-old when the chance of a new relationship comes along. At the time I called her lack of thought either idiotic or sociopathic, but really it’s down to her stunted maturity (if you can have such a thing). What we’re supposed to understand is that this butterfly, having finally emerged from its chrysalis, has discovered true love. And, to twist the knife, she’s also discovered true employment possibilities: everyone’s throwing jobs at her. What’s a 12-year-old to do? Act her age, obviously: pretend it’s not happening, go into a kind of pre-pubescent denial until an adult tells her to pull herself together and stop it. She pulls herself together sharpish, and stops it.


6 Responses to Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

  1. Ed says:

    The finest review of one of the most painstaking novels I have ever read. Bravo!

  2. Jules says:

    This is a fantastic review. Love the part where you compare Eilis to a sociopath! Spot on!

  3. Ken says:

    I’m reading it because some students I tutor have it for Year 12 in 2016. I’m at page 82, and fed up already. Really boring.

  4. Margaret says:

    This was our book club book for the month, and frankly I just couldn’t make myself read very far into it. You are spot on. Your review helped me to figure out exactly why couldn’t stomach this book and has, consequently, given me something to say at book club tomorrow. (Thanks!!) I like the way you riff on the people rave about how “humane” the book is. It’s a series of nice vignettes written in a technically beautiful style about life in certain places at certain times. These vignettes give all of the correct “humane” details about how hard life is, but somehow, the story is not compelling. The problem is that the reader really never begins caring about the main character. She was shallow, and I highly doubt that every woman in the 1950’s had – to use a phrase from Harry Potter – “the emotional range of a teaspoon.” So you can’t just use “oh women in the 1950’s didn’t take the time to explore their feelings about anything” as an excuse. Take Laura Brown from The Hours. She’s a 1950’s housewife and we don’t get to hear all about her internal life – there’s still some “silence” there. But the author still manages to deftly show, through A SINGLE DAY of her life, that she is a woman who: is completely unfulfilled with her life as a housewife, doesn’t know how to deal with the emotional needs of her child and husband, feels guilty about her feelings because she does love her family and thinks they deserve someone who can better meet their needs, feels trapped, wants to escape, and has moral guilt about suicide while she is pregnant. That’s a compelling character. Eilis, not so much.

    • wecanreadit says:

      You’ve convinced me that I need to read The Hours, that has been sitting on my shelf for about a year now. I’m a big fan of Virginia Woolf, and it’s also time to re-read Mrs D. Not enough hours in the day. As it were.

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