Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin

Toibin, born and raised in Ireland , was brought up in Enniscorthy, the town he describes in the novel. It is therefore no surprise that he gives the story such a sense of time and place. Brooklyn is set in the 1950's and if the reader feels that the central character, Eilis, is a little unreal it is necessary to remember that women's choices then were limited and their expectations of freedom lower.

Toibin writes using the third person, in the past not the present, because he believes that memories give greater depth. Themes of his previous novels have covered personal identity, Irish society and alienation, and all these are embraced in Brooklyn.

Eilis, born in a small southern Irish town, is expected to emigrate to America as the only way to better her prospects. Her loss and homesickness come as a surprise to her but, for a mild character who sleepwalked into emigrating, she seems to embrace American culture with the determination of most émigrés and gains professional qualifications. However, she continues for the most part to maintain her sense of Irish respectability and religious beliefs.

Until she meets Tony, an Italian-American, who has an energy and optimism that Eilis admires and whom she grows fond of. He introduces her to his warm family life, a family unlike her own, that speaks its mind and shows outward affection. All looks set for a hopeful life of steady improvement. Then her elder sister, Rose, who has kept her ill health secret, dies and Eilis feels she must make a trip home to see her mother.

The simplicity of Toibin's style – no long fancy descriptions and a very spare writing – is an attractive facet of the narrative. But it is not easy for a novelist to write so simply whilst still getting across depth of character and events. And in this case it is a style that is not always successful. Dialogue - which is brillaint - and situation drives the story forward but the story has no clear plot and little emotion.

A poet and journalist, Toibin was the son of a frustrated writer and nephew of a poet. They were a family who liked writing down feelings and thoughts but apparently not one that spoke about them. It is that sense of what is felt but not mentioned that informs this novel. It is what is not said that is important.

Belonging is perhaps the over-riding theme of the novel – Eilis does not feel she belongs in Brooklyn – she is alienated; eventually comes to feel she does belong; returns to Ireland where she thinks she belongs then finds she no longer does – she is alienated once more. So returns to Brooklyn.

Another theme is loss – the loss Eilis feels for her home, her siblings, for her mother, later for her sister and finally for her previous life and the life she might have lived had she married an Irishman.

A further theme is that circumstances determine the decisions we make in our lives – that very often the course of action we take is decided for us - time and tide decide where we will end up. Eilis is portrayed as a girl with no will of her own, a strong work ethic and a sense of duty.

But themes do not make a book, characters can. Eilis does not come over as a wholly believable character or, at times, a particularly warm one. She displays no passion and drifts into life changing decisions. Yet, Eilis did make some decisions and not always the right ones. It is one of these decisions – to return to Ireland - that constitutes the most disappointing and unreal part of the story.

The deceit that she exhibits on her return may be meant to reflect the deception of her sister, and later that of her mother. Or, possibly, it is an example of her less than perfect character? On the other hand, the deceit may be just another example of how the family concealed their feelings and refused to accept the undesirable.

Earlier in the story there are also some other odd and annoying facets: the severe sickness and awfulness of Eilis' journey over to America were accentuated yet led to no revelation. When she returns to Ireland the privations and discomforts of the passage are never mentioned. Another unanswered and unnecessary point is that on occasions it is mentioned that Tony is blond, quite unlike his dark Italian brothers. This is left as a tenuous hint at a doubtful parentage in the mind of the reader, but there is no reference to why or how this could be.

And it is this enigmatic writing that instead of stimulating the reader, annoyed many of our reading group. The denouement of the story was flagged as a dilemma but failed to live up to its promise, whilst the end left many dissatisfied. The book was easy to read, there was some lovely writing, great dialogue, mild humour and some touching scenes but only one or two of these really stirred the emotions. I quite enjoyed Brooklyn but, eventually, the novel that promised much, delivered much less than expected.