“As Though From a Distance”: Rereading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

brooklynWhen I posted about Brooklyn here before, I admitted that I might just have been reading it at the wrong time to appreciate it. I found the style so flatly precise it was almost plodding; I thought Eilis herself was so distanced, from herself and from us, that she seemed ultimately insubstantial. “I was expecting something urgent and illuminating to emerge from behind the cool narration,” I concluded, “and was left disappointed.” I liked The Master so much that it seemed to confirm my suspicion that this underwhelmed reaction was at least as much my fault as Tóibín’s, so I decided to give Brooklyn another try.

I wish I could say that on a rereading, Brooklyn was transformed for me into a book I could love. I certainly did like it much better than I did before. I was more moved than I remember being by Eilis’s dilemma, too, and by her feeling of being impossibly placed between two worlds and two selves, each of which recedes or predominates depending on where she is at the moment:

She wished now that she had not married him, not because she did not love him and intend to return to him, but because not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as if she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew.

There is no right or easy resolution. Unlike the bookkeeping she practises, in which ultimately every detail has a proper place and all the columns, if managed correctly, add up, life is untidy:

The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. . . . She saw all three of them — Tony, Jim, her mother — as figures whom she could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark and uncertain.

What still bothered me — what still left me discontented — with Brooklyn is that Tóibín’s prose is the antithesis of this uncertainty and of the emotional turmoil Eilis is surely experiencing but that we (or at least I) can’t hear at all in his sentences, which are so calm, so even, so restrained that they leave me chafing against their very simplicity.

brooklyn2I understand that this can be taken as symptomatic of Eilis’s character. Early in her first year in Brooklyn she recognizes that her survival there in fact depends on suppressing her feelings:

No matter what she dreamed about, no matter how badly she felt, she had no choice, she knew, but to put it all swiftly out of her mind. She would have to get on with her work if it was during the day and go back to sleep if it was during the night. It would be like covering a table with a tablecloth, or closing curtains on a window; and maybe the need would lessen as time went on . . .

She’s just as muffled before this moment as after it, though, and now that I’ve read The Master I know that this deliberate, cerebral tone is not unique to Brooklyn. Perhaps Tóibín is just drawn to characters who live life below the surface, who experience it, as Eilis thinks of herself, “as though from a distance.” There’s an elegance to this remoteness, and a poignancy that is the careful opposite of sentimentality, but while I admire the emotional delicacy of the presentation more than on my first reading, I’m still left just a bit disappointed.

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8 Responses to “As Though From a Distance”: Rereading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn

  1. Susan Bailey says:

    Your commentary about his prose being so stripped reminded me of Linda Ronstadt’s memoir – same kind of prose. At one point she talked about her mom being hospitalized for a lengthy period when she was a child but she wrote about it as if to say, “It rained today, that stinks,” and then moves on. Hard to relate to that kind of writing.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Sometimes the mismatch between tone and implications works better for me than it did here. In The Remains of the Day, for instance, there’s such irony in that gap!

  2. Di says:

    Have you watched the film?

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Not yet, but I’m curious: it seems to me that Eilis played with such restraint might be quite dull to watch, but if the emotion leaks out, it could be really effective.

  3. Gayla says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve read Brooklyn, but from what I remember, I thought that Toibin’s prose style worked well for this novel specifically because Eilis herself was so controlled and restrained; it seemed to reflect the image that she was trying so hard to project. I realize that Toibin writes the way he writes, but I thought his style was well-tailored to this novel.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I think that’s what I meant when I conceded it could be read as “symptomatic of her character.” I agree that in that sense it fits, but there are ways of letting the novel as a whole exceed, if only slightly, the emotional range (or lack thereof!) of the protagonist — I mentioned The Remains of the Day above, and to me that’s a near-perfect example of how to make a flat affect work as a revelation of what’s below the surface.

  4. Kate says:

    I’ve not read Brooklyn but was blown away by Academy Street by Mary Costello which I’m told has echoes of Toibin’s bestseller. It is intensely inward & quietly emotional. A wonderful writer, Ms Costello & I’m looking forward to more from her.

  5. Bookertalk says:

    I was equally disappointed by this especially after reading the magnificent Nora Webster. The ending felt particularly restrained so we never really got to fully appreciate her dilemma.

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