… the kindness of strangers

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Years ago when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing I was blown away by it. It was well plotted and had interesting characters but that wasn’t what really impressed me. It was the writing. The sheer quality of it.

It’s odd then that it was years before I read another Tóibín – his first novel titled The South. I didn’t love as much but I still enjoyed it. Years passed again though and I still didn’t read more by him. I can’t say why.

A little while back now I bought a Kindle. When I loaded it up with books for some recent holidays I noticed that Brooklyn was available. I’d read a lot about it and on a whim bought and downloaded a copy. I then largely forgot about it as I always seem to forget about Tóibín. When I finished my recent Gerald Kersh though I decided I wanted something quiet and beautifully written.

Quiet and beautifully written are words I associate with Tóibín’s work. Brooklyn isn’t an exception. It’s a simple and arguably dull tale with a rather passive central character who largely goes with the flow of (not particularly eventful) events. If not for the writing it would be unreadable.

Eilis Lacey is a sensible young woman living in rural Ireland in the 1950s (and not the 1930s as I thought for the first half or so of the novel) with her mother and her older and more sophisticated sister. There are few job opportunities. Her brothers have both moved to England where they seem to be doing well but they rarely get to visit home. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but the only job she gets is working on the floor of a local shop.

Father Flood, over from the US, notices Eilis and is unhappy that there’s nothing better available for her. After discussions with Eilis’s mother and sister they all decide that the best thing for her is emigration. Father Flood can help set her up in Brooklyn, and while she won’t be a bookkeeper immediately there either with time anything could happen.

Father Flood wrote a formal letter sponsoring Eilis and guaranteeing to take care of her accommodation as well as her general and financial welfare, and on headed notepaper came a letter from Bartocci & Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, offering her a permanent position in their main store at the same address and mentioning her bookkeeping skills and general experience. It was signed Laura Fortini; the handwriting, Eilis noted, was clear and beautiful, and even the notepaper itself, its light blue colour, the embossed drawing of a large building over the letterhead, seemed heavier, more expensive, more promising than anything of its kind she had seen before.

Eilis moves to Brooklyn. She stays in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house with other Irish girls and gets a job in local department store Bartocci & Company (again on the shop floor). She gets homesick, but gets over it and in time meets a local boy with whom she falls in love. As their romance develops problems back home in Ireland require her attention and that’s largely as much plot as I’ll summarise.

In terms of an individual life these are big events. Leaving Enniscorthy. Crossing the Atlantic third class in the bowels of a ship. Adapting to life in a new country. Meeting new and foreign people. Falling in love. This is what life is made of. Few of us bust crime cartels wide open, discover cures to rare diseases, race against time to save a city from disaster. Personal dramas tend to be small and private in nature and not the stuff of gripping fiction.

Tóibín then has written a novel in which things that would only really be exciting to those living them happen to a woman who though pleasant isn’t very interesting. Eilis admires her sister and respects and loves her mother. She gets along well enough with her housemates at Mrs. Kehoe’s and with the people at work. She doesn’t make waves and is happy to fit in with other’s plans.

Occasionally Eilis’s passivity backfires (there’s a tense changing room scene where it becomes apparent that the person helping her change has an interest that is more than professional in ensuring Eilis fits into a bathing costume she’s trying on). In the main though it’s not a problem because almost everyone she meets is decent and helpful.

Father Flood has no ulterior motive here. He’s just doing his best to help out someone he thought needed help. Mrs. Kehoe has her foibles, but she’s basically a good woman. Some of Eilis’s housemates are silly and some prudish but there’s little harm in them (little, but not none – I’ll come back to that). Even Eilis’s boyfriend is kind, patient and funny and wants mostly to make her happy.

Tóibín uses all this to examine the contrasts between life in rural Ireland and life in the US. Enniscorthy is small and gossipy where Brooklyn is large and anonymous. Propriety is important to people back home and there are rigid social codes and a clear heirarchy all of which seems missing in the US. When Bartocci & Company decides to allow “colored” shoppers through its doors though it becomes apparent that Brooklyn has its own heirarchies and codes which just weren’t as immediately apparent.

Brooklyn is a novel of emigration. On her way to Brooklyn Eilis stays briefly in England with one of her brothers. Her mother and sister haven’t laughed much at home since he left and it’s a joy to Eilis to see him. He has no plans to return home to a jobless Ireland but life in England isn’t easy either.

‘What are they like?’ she asked. ‘Who?’ ‘The English.’ ‘They’re fair, they’re decent,’ Jack said. ‘If you do your job, then they appreciate that. It’s all they care about, most of them. You get shouted at a bit on the street, but that’s just Saturday night. You pay no attention to it.’ ‘What do they shout?’ ‘Nothing for the ears of a nice girl going to America.’ ‘Tell me!’ ‘I certainly will not.’ ‘Bad words?’ ‘Yes, but you learn to pay no attention and we have our own pubs so anything that would happen would be just on the way home. The rule is never to shout back, pretend nothing is happening.’

In Brooklyn Mrs. Kehoe’s seems to be Enniscorthy in miniature. Father Flood’s church with its Christmas dinner for destitute Irish men is another export of home. The Irish in Brooklyn live with other Irish, look to the church for charity and succour, date and marry within their own community.

There’s a broader point being made here. The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. They try in a sense not to be emigrants, which given how few of them seem to have wanted to leave isn’t really surprising. Despite their efforts though they’re not home any more. Mrs. Kehoe’s house and Father Flood’s church are surrounded by another world. The Irish keep to the Irish, but around them are the Blacks, the Jews, the Italians. All of them keep to a degree to themselves, but as they move past each other in the pot the edges of all of them are melting.

When Eilis has to return to Ireland on family business she’s become a different person. To the people she left behind she’s now glamorous and tanned. Her clothes are more fashionable and more expensive. She seems more confident, but how could she not? Emigration has changed her as it’s changed waves of emigrant Irish over generations.

This is a novel about the emigrant experience then, but it’s not just that and it’s not at all heavy handed in making its points. Tóibín has a marvellous knack for crafting dialogue and also a good eye for comedy. The scenes in the transatlantic crossing as Eilis and her bunkmate battle their neighbours for a shared bathroom are tremendous and the exchanges at Mrs. Kehoe’s dining table are vivid and neatly observed:

‘Where I’m from,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘we didn’t go out at all and none of us were any the worse for it.’ ‘And how did you meet fellows?’ Diana asked. ‘Will you look at her?’ Patty interjected. ‘She’s never met a fellow in her life.’ ‘Well, when I do,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘it will not be in a saloon bar.’

There are occasional dark undertones. I mentioned earlier that the women at Mrs. Kehoe’s weren’t entirely harmless. Nor is Eilis. The Irish community is supportive and helpful, but it’s also judgemental and snobbish and the treatment Eilis and the rest dish out to a new housemate who by their standards is of a lower class to them is ugly and petty. Eilis herself receives similar treatment from the woman who owns the shop she works in back in Enniscorthy. None of this is ultimately much more than harsh words and a bit of meanness. Like so much else here it’s significant to the person it happens to but not much more than that.

Brooklyn is a novel almost without conflict. The small rivalries in Enniscorthy and Mrs. Kehoe’s aren’t ones that are going to have any real impact on Eilis’s life. The challenges she faces are eminently surmountable. Eilis’s acceptance of what others do and plan for her means she meets little resistance along her way. All this should make it dull and I think for some readers it probably would be dull. Not for me though.

Tóibín takes an ordinary life facing ordinary issues and makes it real and compelling. It’s the prose which sells it. Brooklyn is just so well written that the lack of event was not only not a problem for me – it became a strength. What’s important at the individual level isn’t the sweep of history. That’s our backdrop. It’s those things which would interest nobody else that really matter.

Brooklyn. This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last link knowingly contains spoilers on essentially the entire plot which allows Kerry to craft a very fine analysis of Eilis’s character – if you’ve already read the book or know you won’t it’s well worth reading. If you haven’t read it but might it’s probably best left for later. Trevor’s particularly good on a major theme of the book which I’ve not even touched on here – separation and distance.

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20 Comments

Filed under Booker, Irish Literature, Tóibín, Colm

20 responses to “… the kindness of strangers

  1. Max,

    You’ve done an excellent job describing aspects of the novel which has not been extensively addressed in other reviews I have read. Particularly, the parallel between the hierarchies in Ireland and the U.S. There are a number of subtle themes to the book which is what makes it so wonderfully readable while having a “dull” plot. My significant other generally goes in for plot, but quite enjoyed this one. It is so beautifully elegant, it seduces all manner of readers.

    Thanks, of course, for the link (and for warning of the spoilers therein; as the others you’ve linked to had done such a fine job, I did intend my post as a discussion more than a review).

  2. I disagree that Eilis is passive. She’s simply introverted, a deep thinker, someone who has a very rich inner life. And Toibin captures that perfectly. I’ve never read any Henry James but I heard Toibin speak at the Cheltenham Literary festival in 2009 and he said that James was his inspiration for the character. He wanted to create a quietly spoken girl who had a terrible lot of stuff happening in her head, a character that could have stepped out of a great 19th century novel.

    I have to say that I loved this book when I read it, and I still think about it 18 months down the line. Indeed, it’s been fresh in my mind in recent weeks as I’ve come to terms with my own immigrant experience. I recently went back to Australia for two months, the longest visit I have had since leaving those shores 12 years ago, and I have come to realise that it is not the same country that I left. I no longer belong in Oz, but I don’t belong in the UK either. This sense of dislocation, which must happen to every single immigrant, is perfectly captured in Toibin’s book. In fact, it is so well done I can only bow to his genius.

    I think the message that I have taken from “Brooklyn” is this: you can stew about which country you should live in, whether you should stay or go back, but it’s important to realise that there is no right or wrong decision, there is no right or wrong place to live — whatever you decide to do will simply provide you with a DIFFERENT experience, not necessarily a better one.

  3. My first Toibin. I wasn’t crazy about it.

  4. Beautiful post, I recognise your style more in this one than in the previous ones. I don’t know how to explain this.
    I’ve never heard of this writer, as usual but I’m interested in reading this novel. The subject reaches me personally. So thanks for this.

    “The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. ” I’ve always thought that people who complain about immigrants who keep their language, their food, their clothes have never left their country themselves. How homesick they must be, especially when they come from sunnier countries. I come from a place where a lot of immigrants came from the 1920s to the 1960s, from different countries. (mostly from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Yougoslavia, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) Food is the thing that stays the longest in families. And football devotion for their country. Like you say, life is in small things.

  5. I thought the discussion at yours excellent Kerry. All the reviews I linked to were good of course, but yours did something quite different to the others or to mine for that matter which seemed worth flagging.

    Kimbofo, I loved it too. The sense of dislocation is marvellously captured. Homesickness has rarely been brought so well to life. The passivity for me lay in Eilis never really making a single decision of her own – each time either someone else took it or events forced it. There’s clearly a very rich inner life but the external is more acted upon than acting.

    Not that that’s a bad thing of course. Brooklyn shows in part that conflict and an active protagonist aren’t necessary either for life to have drama or a book to have interest.

    Guy, then I probably wouldn’t press much further. I saw you comment somewhere that it seemed too much the romance for you. I can see that as that is a strong element. If you do try another I’d go for The Heather Blazing but how well you’d like it I can’t say. It’s been ages since I read it.

    Bookaround, thank you. I probably spent longer writing it.

    Food and sport both come up here. The Irish eat Irish food, the Italians Italian. Sport though is the opposite. The food is a link to home. Baseball a link to America.

    Toibin captures the invisibility you can feel far from home. When I studied in Naples I spent the first fortnight miserable as I didn’t yet have any Italian and everything was different and nobody could speak to me. After that it got much better and I grew to love the place. Toibin has a tremendous feel for that experience.

    On immigrants, customs and so on I’m very much on the side of the immigrants as a rule. Not as popular a position in the UK as it used to be sadly, but I risk going off-topic on my own blog…

  6. I think it is a tribute to the author’s ability that so many interpretations of this novel are possible — as both your review and the list that you include show. Brooklyn is one of those novels that has got better with time — I particularly appreciate the way that the immigrant experience has become more important when I look back at it.

  7. I meant to read this I saw it as the flip side Trevors love and summer that was published within weeks of this book ,both set at similar time and this struck me as the story of what happen if you chased the dream of the us ,and love and summer to what happened to the people that stayed behind ,this book always make me think of the pogues lyrics thousand are sailing ,so much hope so often let down ,all the best stu

  8. leroyhunter

    A lovely review Max. “If not for the writing it would be unreadable.” That’s a great hook.

    I must admit Toibin is not someone who particularly excites my interest, but I’m aware of how highly praised this book has been and this review makes me think about putting it on the shelf. You make it sound like the acme of “literary” fiction: where skill with language overrides almost all other considerations. That in itself is a reason to consider the book.

    A couple of things I was reminded of: firstly, it sounds like a gentle, humane version of The Slaves of Solitude. Secondly, as a “plotless” or “dull” story where incident is low-key or non-existent and character and reflection are central, it sounds like Toibin has achieved something natural and expressive. The contrast is with The Canal, where the idea of “boredom” or the mundane details of life are showcased and draw attention to themselves in a way that seems forced. It’s the difference in the 2 approaches I think is striking; here you have an ordinary life that just “is”, or is a good thing in its own terms, whereas Rourke presents an ordinary life that is a symptom of malaise, alienation etc.

    PS “The Irish eat Irish food” – God help them!

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  10. There’s definitely a lot in there Kevin. I think Toibin tends to be something of a slow burner to be honest. It was fascinating rereading those reviews I linked to after I’d written my own.

    Stu, brilliant song. From memory:

    Wherever we go we celebrate
    the land that made us refugees
    from fear of priests, with empty plates
    from guilt, and weeping effigies

    Must check if I remembered correctly now. One of the best they did. Nice reference.

  11. Makes us rather than made us, but not bad off the cuff.

    Leroy, I think Toibin is pretty much the acme of literary fiction. Nothing happens slowly, but it happens beautifully.

    I’d single out James Salter as someone who writes at that level but with stuff happening too. Astonishing writer James Salter.

    Although this is better written I actually prefer Slaves of Solitude. I’ll have to think about why because it’s not I think the better book. Curious. The comparison with The Canal is interesting. This is extremely natural, the dialogue is utterly convincing. The Canal is almost hypernatural. As you say this shows a life that just is, whereas The Canal shows a life which is in a sense an intellectual argument.

    The Italians definitely get the better part of the food deal…

  12. Hmm. Seems like Brooklyn is one of those that needs to be read to be understood… I’ve never reached a clear conclusion whether or not I’d enjoy reading it, but even though I don’t really like passive characters, I find it interesting that you say that “lack of event” (I call it “boringness” when encountered…) comes off as a strength, I suppose emphasizing the quality of the writing.

    I guess the reason I haven’t read it until now is that I rarely like books where all that holds it up is the writing. Though I like a well-written book as much as the next reader, I do feel there’s this tendency to forget the other aspects of well-written books – plotting, characterization, etc. I honestly like a good story. A book without much of one may not be good enough to keep me happy. And so I find myself again thinking: hmm…

  13. Well, there’s plenty of great books with great plots, so you might not want to prioritise it.

    I actually agree that other aspects of writing are often downplayed. Plotting, characterisation, pacing is a big one for me – all these things are important.

    Some writers are masters of plot and pacing but weaker on writing and characterisation. Their books can often be huge fun to read. The importance of story as you say shouldn’t be underestimated.

    Of course the best combine all these elements, but there’s only so many of those.

    Anyway, where I might read Edgar Rice Burroughs for plot and pace, I read Toibin for the prose. I wouldn’t read Toibin for plot and pace though and I wouldn’t read Burroughs for prose either.

  14. leroyhunter

    Agree with you 100% on Salter, he’s superb. I only have one of his novels left, I was going to pick it up the other day but postponed.

    “a life which is in a sense an intellectual argument” – that’s a great way to put it, it captures exactly the quality that distinguishes the books (and which I suppose to be fair Rourke was striving for). There are risks with both Rourke’s and Toibin’s approach, any falling short can leave you feeling dissatisfied as a reader. In Rourke’s case I’d maintain it’s because he’s too similar to his obvious (and superior) model, Ballard. Whereas Toibin seems to have succeeded to an extent that means he is now himself the reference point for comparison of this type of novel.

    As an aside, the changed emigrant returning to a changed homeland is something that figures regularly (if not always prominently) in McGahern. The result of the meeting is almost always dissatisfaction, discord.

  15. Salter has nothing like the recognition he merits.

    I’m reading McCarthy’s first at the moment. It’s well done, but not flawless and at times that leaves me dissatisfied. Not so much I won’t continue with him, but it jars occasionally.

    I should read some McGahern. But then I should read so many things…

    Would you want the Kersh by the way Leroy?

  16. leroyhunter

    That’s a very kind offer re the Kersh Max, one I’ll gladly take you up on. Do you want to drop me a mail to arrange? Maybe I could send you something back in return.

  17. Sorry for the slow reply. I’ll drop you an email. No need for anything in return. I’m trying to cut down on how much stuff I have and it’s nice for something like this to get a good home.

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