The blurb page of my edition of Brooklyn is full of praise for Toibin’s style. Words like “simplicity” predominate, along with “spare,” “delicate,” and “elegance.” I can imagine a review of Brooklyn that would describe similar features but with less enthusiasm: instead of “spare,” perhaps “sparse”; instead of “delicate,” “flat” or “colorless.” It’s a book that is strangely without affect, so deliberately underwritten it’s as if Toibin was determined to keep not just himself off the page but his characters and readers too. Is elegance dependent on such effacement, such careful subordination of elaboration or enthusiasm? Can there be no pulse, no poetry, in it? The negative review I imagine is not, quite, the review I would write, but I finished the novel feeling still held at a distance. Eilis Lacey, for instance: who is she? What is she like? She’s barely there, though the novel is, I suppose, told from her point of view. Even accepting what I take to be the premise – that she lives remote, somehow, from her own emotions, almost even from her own experiences – she’s an oddly insubstantial figure, the sum of actions she takes and things she says more than any rich conception of character. Like Eilis, the story too is a sequence, this and then this and then this. The writing precise, each detail placed just so, but the pacing is so steady that if I were writing that negative review, I’d call Toibin’s style “pedestrian.” Maybe even “plodding.” I’m not writing that review, though, because I’m not sure that’s so, only that it struck me as so, that I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration and was left disappointed. Something can be perfect of its kind and still not be the kind of thing we love: Brooklyn has a certain minimalist perfection, but if I weigh it against, say, Leaving Brooklyn, also a story about self and place, about growing and seeing, about loving and choosing, Leaving Brooklyn is the book for me. (I realize there’s no intrinsic necessity to that comparison, but it occurred to me throughout my reading of Brooklyn.) I’m surprised at my own reaction because I like my books cerebral. Maybe I was in the wrong “head space” myself to appreciate such an austere approach.
Have you read Brooklyn? What did you think?