The luck of the Irish
Author Colm Toibin talks about his immigrant novel, Brooklyn
With its period setting, decidedly linear plot and bare-bones sentences, you could be forgiven for assuming Colm Toibin’s latest novel, Brooklyn, is a simple tale. But the Irish author, who has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — for The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004) — is far too skilled a writer. The triumph of Brooklyn lies in what’s nestled beneath its deceptively plain, old-fashioned narrative.
The novel begins in Enniscorthy, the small town in County Wexford, Ireland, where Toibin grew up, and tells the tumultuous experiences of a young woman named Eilish Lacey. Toibin explains that Brooklyn’s origins can be traced back to his childhood.
"I had heard the story when I was a kid of ‘that woman who went to Brooklyn,’" he says during a recent interview. The anecdote stuck with him, making an earlier appearance in a short story (House for Sale).
It was only recently, after he built a house in a coastal town near Enniscorthy, that Toibin says "sensations came," bringing with them "all sorts of anxieties and inspirations about ideas of home — of where you belong and where you should go." He knew then that a story he’d heard nearly 40 years before could be fleshed out into novel form.
From page 1 until its close, Brooklyn embeds the reader in the mind of Eilish Lacey. Though Toibin doesn’t specify her age or physical appearance, Eilish’s youth and innocence come through, whether in the description of her attending a dance with her best friends, manning the cash at a local grocery or doing imitations of her snobbish boss for her widowed mother and older sister, Rose.
In a few swift strokes, Toibin is able to suggest Eilish’s frugal life in Enniscorthy: there are stores where her family cannot afford to shop; buying a new coat is a big deal. Meanwhile, vocational school seems the only prospect for bettering oneself in a town with few jobs. Eilish assumes life will always be this way, but change arrives in the form of an American priest named Father Flood. He suggests the girl’s keen mind for figures could be put to use in a department store he knows of in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The priest’s offer gave Toibin an opportunity to address one of the book’s key themes: "That idea of the American century sort of making its way into the spirit of people in a small town in Ireland." As the author explains, by the 1950s, people in Ireland would already be fully aware of the "openness and glamour of America."
Says Toibin, "Things are bigger in America — you know, everyone has an icebox, and television is starting and the movies are coming bigger and better from America."
The Lacey family swiftly accepts Father Flood’s offer on Eilish’s behalf. But tensions ripple through the preparations for the young woman’s journey. The family is outwardly stoic, but Eilish is inwardly afraid at her impending departure. Meek and duty-bound, she does go, and her harrowing trip across the ocean is so vividly rendered, it will leave readers feeling as wrung out and green around the gills as Toibin’s protagonist.
It’s here that Toibin’s rigorous character study begins to touch on broader themes, conjuring all the emotions that accompanied European emigration, circa 1950. While Brooklyn will strike a chord with anyone who has ever ventured far from home, Toibin allows that Eilish’s experiences are unique. "They’re distinctly Irish," he says, "in that so many people left and we know so little about what they did. In other words, they didn’t put the pain in the letters home."
Once ensconced in a Brooklyn boarding house for expat women, Eilish begins to taste some of America’s pleasures: she buys fancy stockings for her family on sale, attends local dances and tends to customers at Bartocci’s upscale department store. But her attempts at assimilation are undone with the arrival of letters from her family — they trigger melancholy. As Toibin writes, "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."
Eilish’s homesickness is acute, in part because she has left so much behind. Toibin’s determination to avoid clichés is evident throughout Brooklyn, notably in his characterizations of the Lacey clan, who transcend the stereotypes of the strict Irish-Catholic family. "It’s not as though it’s a sort of hellhole that she gets out of, with a screaming father and a drunken mother and a vicious sister," says Toibin. "There’s no sense of the family as a sort of crucible of pain. They look after one another, they laugh at one another’s jokes, they sit around together, there’s a huge sense of them as easygoing people who get on together. So there’s all that sense of belonging there."
The lure of a warm, familiar home threatens to erase Eilish’s attempts to lay down roots in America, even as she finds herself coming into her own – wearing more sophisticated clothes, attending a Dodgers game, excelling at night school and falling in love with a doting Italian-American named Tony. While in New York, she develops an identity that no longer quite fits in Enniscorthy; when family obligations bring her to back to Ireland, her New York existence seems distant and hazy. Toibin skilfully paints a portrait of life in exile as a painful cycle of identity crisis and reinvention.
This sense of being neither here nor there carries over into the prose. Most of the drama in Brooklyn is unuttered, and occurs when a character experiences several conflicting emotions at once. The most masterly example of this is a scene in which the Brooklyn den mother, Mrs. Kehoe, offers Eilish the most coveted room in the boarding house. It’s a friendly gesture that immediately becomes loaded with less altruistic meanings in Eilish’s mind.
In a novel so attuned to fraught silences and roiling inner emotions, Toibin’s greatest accomplishment is giving voice to the emigration experience.
"I think that the hemorrhage from Ireland was so great, that that’s almost a national story," he says. "People ended up going through quite a lot, but not telling anybody, because they just wanted to get on with things. And also, people tended to forget things. Once things started to go well [in their adopted land], they put all that struggle out of their minds."
It’s a testament to Toibin’s skill that Brooklyn keeps those struggles alive. By the time Eilish Lacey must choose her true home, the reader feels the full weight of her decision.
Brooklyn is in stores now.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.