Toibin Colm

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn

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.

Zadie Smith (ed.): The Book of Other People

There’s nothing like a striking cover to get me interested in a book. And what better than this?

Well, one thing that would be better is if the pink bit across the middle was just a loose paper band which comes off and leaves the cover devoid of any words at all. Of course to show you that I’d have to stop just downloading cover pics off tesco.com and actually photograph my own copy. Oh all right then.

Very handsome: very McSweeney’s, in fact, and sure enough this is a production of Dave Eggers’ busy literary community, or rather from one of its offshoots, 826 New York, a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting students with creative writing. (I had to search around for the link to their site, as the one given in the book, somewhat embarrassingly, is wrong.) In this good cause, Zadie Smith has edited a collection of stories from, well, the usual McSweeney’s suspects plus a handful of others. What “Edited by” means is not quite clear. Would Smith really take the blue pencil to Colm Tóibín’s prose? Or were they simply relying on her big list of Facebook friends?

The concept of the collection is, in Smith’s words, for the writers to “make somebody up.” Thus each story is named after its main character, though the styles are varied. Some, such as the great George Saunders, use the task simply to write another story along their usual lines, and Saunders’s ‘Puppy’, while as funny as ever, risks seeming like just more of the same from him. Others have stretched themselves more: Andrew O’Hagan, whose novels I have never been able to get along with, turns a neat trick in his story ‘Gordon’ which immediately sent me back to the beginning to re-read it (no great task, as it was only four pages long).

The writers who have made their characters live most vividly seem to be those who have opted to create comic monsters. The most entertaining story in the collection, David Mitchell’s ‘Judith Castle’, is about a woman of a certain age, and particular aspects of Englishness. She discusses her search for love with us:

That Olly and I were intellectual equals was no surprise. Soulmate Solutions don’t let any old Tom, Dick or Harry sign up. But at our rendezvous in Bath, he couldn’t hide how utterly enchanté he was with little old moi on a carnal level. Once over fifty, most British women go to seed, leaving the rest of us to arise, like roses in a bombsite.

Hari Kunzru gives us something similar in ‘Magda Mandela’, and like Mitchell’s Castle, there is more than an air of sadness beneath the madness. And Jonathan Safran Foer makes good on his excellent novels by giving us a tiny but irresistible slice of ‘Rhoda’, a grandmother with all the prejudices of her time:

When we came over, in 1950, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a schwartze. Nobody told me. Nobody sat me down and said, By the way, there’s schwartzes.

Other stories, perhaps intended as comic, are less successful, such as Toby Litt’s ‘Monster’, which seemed to me predictably self-indulgent. A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Frank’ was, like the other books of hers I’ve read, technically impressive but not really enjoyable.

The collection introduced me to several writers I’d heard of but had never bothered to sample. Now I know I simply must read more ZZ Packer, whose ‘Gideon’ was confident and mesmerising, and Aleksandr Hemon, whose ‘The Liar’ was let down by its central revelation but otherwise beautifully done, set in another time and reminding me of Jim Crace (“The crowd had been looking at him all along, but now it tightens, as if each man were a blood vessel and the air has just become colder”). Similarly, Miranda July, whose debut collection of stories was recently published, gives a story both entertaining and Carveresquely touching in ‘Roy Spivey,’ about a woman who meets a Hollywood star on a plane.

Meanwhile, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware break up the text with their comic strips: Clowes’s ‘Justin M. Damiano’ is a satirical look at internet geeks who think anyone cares what they post on their review blogs (hey…), and Ware is typically lacerating, and beautifully meticulous in his artwork, with the tale of ‘Jordan Wellington Lint’ up to the age of 13.

The two most established writers on the roster prove particularly interesting. Colm Tóibín’s ‘Donal Webster’ is a typically sober and sonorous work, probably one of the richest on show, but it looks oddly out of place among the generally more showy performances which surround it. Nick Hornby on the other hand is unexpectedly innovative, with his ‘J. Johnson’, which gives us a writer’s life told through a series of About the Author blurbs (illustrated by Posy Simmons), a teasing and clever portrait of frustration and revisionism. It’s a work of reinvention – and brevity – that some of these young whippersnappers could learn from.

Colm Tóibín: The Blackwater Lightship

Colm Toibin’s (whose surname I am going to denude of its accents from here on, partly because I’m not sure how to do them on my Mac and partly to help search results: ruthless, aren’t I, Colm?) fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.  I re-read it this week as part of a book group discussion, and was pleased to enjoy it even more than I did the first time around.

It’s set in contemporary, rural Ireland, and concerns three women – Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Dora – who are brought together after years of cold separation.  Their common cause is looking after Helen’s brother (Lily’s son) Declan, who is dying of Aids.  His slow decline through the book is harrowing, and the story is gloomy enough elsewhere as it is.

It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.  She stood at the edge of the cliff until the sun came out from behind the black rainclouds.

Trying to love is one of the things that The Blackwater Lightship is about: the title refers to a lighthouse which Lily remembers as a child, and which she thought of as female standing against the other lighthouse, the ‘male’ Tuskar:

He was forceful and strong and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen. And I thought they were calling to each other; it was very satisfying, him being strong and her being faithful.  …  And all that turned out not to be true.

Women are the principal players in a novel which is absolutely driven by its characters, and it is this achievement which makes it such a great and vivid book, despite its downcast aspect.  Not a false note is sounded in the dialogue or interactions between the characters – Helen’s coldness, Lily’s combative nature, Dora’s ambiguity, all seem perfectly right – and the whole of the book has a cleanliness and purity to the writing which is like clear running water and absolutely invigorating.  As well as women and men, Toibin does children brilliantly, and the portrayal of Declan and Helen as children (in a flashback which goes some way to explaining the family antipathies) is masterly.  There are numerous just-so details which sound and feel right as though from our own memories:

The house was gone now.  In her mind, she went through each room again, how each door closed – the door to her parents’ room almost noiseless, the door to Declan’s room more stubborn, impossible to open or close without alerting the whole house – or the light switches – the one outside the bathroom which Declan when he was tall enough loved turning off while someone was inside, the light switch inside her bedroom door, firm and hard, to be turned on and off decisively, unlike the light switch in her parents’ room, which could be switched on and off with a little flick.

In the middle of all this minimalism and understated description, there are rich and strong emotions at play, and even the secondary characters, like Declan’s friends Paul and Larry, are fully fleshed and utterly real and true.  There’s even some (welcome) light relief, from the nosy Kehoe sisters and Larry’s garrulous ways, some of which is rendered in an Irish speech pattern so well observed that it will seem incomprehensible to some (“God, it’s gas the names of the cats” – tr: the cats’ names are absolutely hilarious), and some from stories told within the story:

Didn’t I tell you what Kitty Walsh from the Ballagh did last year, and she’s so blind she can’t see in front of her nose, and that’s God’s truth.   Didn’t she go into the eye man the day before her appointment, and she just said she was looking at spectacle frames – her sister Winnie told me this – and didn’t she look closely at the letters when the door was open, you know, the letters you have to read.  She wrote them down and went home and learned them off.  So by the next day the eye man complimented her on her sight when she could hardly see the colour of the money she was paying him with.  And she driving a Mazda mad all over the country now.  Get into the ditch if you see her coming.  A red Mazda.

The cover of the paperback has a quote which says “We shall be living with and reading The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years.” Well, eight and counting.  No sweat, I’d say.