Colm Tóibín is one of those writers who works slowly and never disappoints. I think of him as a sort of Irish Ishiguro: five years per novel, and always on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. His last novel, The Master (2004), was the best book in a strong shortlist, and his previous novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) effortlessly held up when I revisited it a couple of years ago. His new novel then comes heavily weighted with expectation, not least for his new publishers Penguin, who are hoping this will be Tóibín’s “break-out novel” which “will do for him what Atonement did for McEwan.” Whether that is something he would wish for is a debate for another day.
Brooklyn divides its story, and its character, between the borough of New York and Tóibín’s favoured stamping ground of Enniscorthy, in Wexford, south-east Ireland. (“I thought it was dreary,” he said of this landscape in an interview, “but it somehow stayed in my memory.”) The character is Eilis Lacey, whom the Penguin publicity materials boldly compare to Emma Bovary and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. No pressure now. Eilis lives a limited existence in Enniscorthy in the 1950s, directed by her mother and outshone by her sister Rose, who is forever going off to play golf. Eilis must content herself with a Sunday job in a local shop for local people, run by the miserable Miss Kelly: “Eilis realised that she could not turn down the offer. It was better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.”
‘Your mother’ll be pleased that you have something. And your sister,’ Miss Kelly said. ‘I hear she’s great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out.’
Soon, however, Eilis finds that other plans have been made for her, when an Irish-American priest comes to visit and suggests that she could come ‘across the water’ to work in Brooklyn.
Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. … And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realised, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.
Already Eilis is displaying her primary characteristic: of being utterly passive in her own destiny, so much so that at times the reader wants to shake her. She rarely makes decisions: until the very end of the book. Like a sailing vessel she floats and sinks with the tide, subject to the influence of others: Father Flood; Mrs Kehoe, her landlady in Brooklyn; or Georgina, her cabin-mate on the uncomfortable journey across the Atlantic.
Indeed the sea-crossing section of the book, a superb toe-curling comic set piece featuring a communal bathroom and motion sickness, is significant in showing that Tóibín can flex his narrative muscles and entertain the reader. This is just as well, because much of the rest of the book is written in a low-key tone which, while entirely appropriate to Eilis’s personality, frankly lacks oomph. In his tale of frustration and limited lives, Tóibín seems most of all to be channelling William Trevor, a writer I have often thought (warning: the following sacrilegious statement may shock) somewhat overrated.
Which is not to deny the high expertise of Tóibín’s ability. Brooklyn is a relatively short book at 250 pages, but each page tells us so much about Eilis, her story and her surroundings – while the prose remains fluent and clear – that I began to wonder if I had missed some hidden compartments. This is managed, too, with relatively little explicit signposting of Eilis’s emotions.
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.
Brooklyn achieves its own modest aims, but lacks the ambition of The Master. However like that novel, it has an integrity which means that it reads like a portrait of a person, rather than a fictional character. It dips its toe in the social issues of the times, such as racism in America. It also has a unity of purpose, as a result of which Eilis Lacey’s story sticks in the mind, even if the jury will remain out for the next century or so on whether she does have the longevity of Tess or Emma. The book’s elegance, straightforward narrative and emotional conclusion may well give it an appeal that earns Tóibín a deserved wider readership. Nonetheless I couldn’t help wishing that, like its heroine on board the translantic ship, it might have gone out on deck a little more often, and got its hair messed up a bit.