Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín’s Brook- lyn is a simple and utterly exquisite novel. The writing is so transparent, so apparently guileless, that I kept wondering what trickery Tóibín had used to keep me so involved, so attached, so unaccountably warmed.
The tale’s simplicity is, in a sense, like life’s: an Irish girl called Eilis can’t find good work in her home town of Enniscorthy, so she goes along with a well-intended family conspiracy to send her to a decent job in Brooklyn. It is the early 1950s. Her father is dead.
In Brooklyn, she finds her feet and falls in love. But when her older sister dies, she must return to Enniscorthy. Her Italian-American boyfriend fears that she will not return, and persuades her to marry him. His premonition is spot-on. The return throws Eilis into confusion. Her mother is now alone. She has an Irish suitor. Home is home. Brooklyn seems a long way away. Will she return? Won’t she? I have said too much already. But if the ingredients sound unremarkable, everything about the telling — the pacing, the lucidity, the balance between compassion and restraint — is consummate.
This is a story that has no villains. In fact, the amount of kindness, respect and even love Eilis inspires, without seeming to do anything special to deserve it, is touching. She is simply a good and intelligent person, and we, like those who come into contact with her, can’t seem to help having her best interests at heart. Eilis is perceptive. She is good at sensing motives, even in alien circumstances. And she is firm in her sense of herself, her autonomy, her capabilities and limits. But she is also malleable. The two qualities go together: she is perceptive enough to be sympathetic to what others want from her. When, for instance, her mother and sister arrange the move to Brooklyn, with the help of an Irish priest based there, she quickly grasps the implications: her bright and fetching sister, Rose, will have to stay at home with their mother, forgoing marriage. Her mother, too, will miss her — it surprises her to realise how much.
But Eilis also understands that the decision has been made for her in full consciousness of its repercussions; thus the only decent thing she can do is proceed with enthusiasm, however feigned.
Tóibín’s description of the voyage over is unforgettable: several pages of seasickness, misery, and — in the form of Eilis’s colorful English cabin mate — bracingly spirited benevolence. Life in Brooklyn is not easy, and Eilis succumbs to a spell of hobbling homesickness. But things improve, and, on the whole, she is well-treated and lucky. Father Flood, the priest, sets her up as promised and remains on hand to watch out for her. Her employers are fair, even rather fond. Her landlady is a bit over-solicitous but, like almost everyone, she has a soft spot for Eilis. Only a couple of her fellow tenants, all of them single young women, are a little catty.
Eilis meets Tony at a dance. Tóibín’s account of their courtship is beautiful, and enchantingly paced. Tony impresses Eilis not just by treating her well but by being ‘fully at ease and curious. His willingness to be happy, his eagerness, she saw, made him oddly vulnerable … He was delighted by things.’
We are not made to feel that these are detached or uncommitted observations on the part of Eilis. She is more than just a cipher, in other words, for the classic writer’s dilemma; on the contrary, she is deeply involved in her predicament. When they make love, she notices that he
appeared lost to the world. And this sense of him as beyond her made her want him more than she had ever done, made her feel that this now and the memory of it later would be enough for her and had made a difference to her beyond anything she had ever imagined.
Does she actually love him? She says as much to her confessor. But when pressed to confirm it, ‘she sighed and said nothing’.
When, after Rose’s sudden death, Eilis receives a letter that makes it clear she must make a return trip to Ireland, she wants to be able to tell Tony that she will stay. But then it occurs to her that he might feel that it is her duty to go.
Is she rationalising a secret desire to return? Or is this another instance of Eilis’s admirable fellow-feeling, her ability to perceive and somehow mirror the goodness in other people? Decency and pity, at any rate, are swirling and thickening around Eilis and Tony, and threatening to get the better of their romance.
There is, of course, a moral dimension to any homecoming. Home has claims on us that overpower most others. And yet by lavishing so much attention on Eilis’s time in Brooklyn, Tóibín quietly upends this moral expectation. So we are inevitably saddened to read that, back in Ireland, ‘everything about [Tony] seemed remote’ to Eilis. ‘And not only that, but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her.’
When it has been so richly present for us, this can’t help but hurt.