Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

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?

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4 Responses to Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I should probably preface this with the fact that I am an ardent Toibin fan. I thought this book was wonderfully devastating. I finished it on an airplane and wanted to exclaim to the other passengers that Eilis was not making the right choice! I haven’t felt so affected by a book since, well, middle school.

    You are right that Toibin is sparse, but I think that it is more a comment on Eilis’ own disaffected state. She refuses to let herself have emotion and refuses to make any decisions using her emotions. Why else would she ever end up in the mediocre life she has? In a way, I thought this was a statement about the numbness of grief and the stereotypical British (and Irish, by default) “stiff upper lip.”

  2. Teresa says:

    I really appreciated the simplicity of this book, but as I mentioned to you the other day on Twitter, I read it after a spate of more complex, experimental fiction, all filled with attitude, and this was a refreshing change. Eilis’s ordinariness, even insubstantialness, was captured so well, yet when I immersed myself in her personal drama, I still cared deeply about her.

    But I know a lot of people who were frustrated by the book and Eilis’s passivity. You’re not at all alone. I think you’ve got it right when you say it’s a perfect of its kind but not something everyone will love.

  3. Susan Messer says:

    Sometimes, I think, the more a writer keeps the emotion off the page, the more the reader can feel it intensely and in her own way. I am seeing that in the book I’m reading now (“Bee Season,” by Myla Goldberg)–which is nothing like Brooklyn, but this thing about the emotion being off the page but then somehow in my heart . . . that seems the same.

    I too appreciated Brooklyn (not sure I would say “loved”), but for me, the spareness and lack of emotional display made enormous sense in the context of Eilis’s powerlessness, constricted options, huge losses (leaving home before she was ready). My husband, however, found her disappointing in her passivity. To me, it seemed too sadly true. I kept hoping her life could turn out different, better. Hope springs eternal, as they say.

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    These are really thoughtful comments; thanks, everyone (and sorry to be replaying so belatedly–I have been away and hence distracted). I think the arguments about ways the novel’s voice reflects Eilis’s own condition are good ones to make: the flatness and passivity do seem to reflect her way of living in the world. Yet I think (a bit hesitantly, though, as befits having read the novel only once) that it’s possible to take this device too far. A better comparison, or a comparison on a different point, than Leaving Brooklyn would be Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a novel I do love. There, the repressed voice is very gradually infiltrated by our awareness, and then finally, too late, Stevens’s realization, that this is no way to speak — really, no way to live. The poignancy of that novel’s ending is as devastating as it is because of that technical feat. But I can see arguing that it is possible for the character never truly to recognize or articulate her own failure to claim her own life, and that Toibin captures the bleakness of that. Ishiguro also allows some comedy into his novel; overall its emotional range just seems greater.

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