My experience with reading books by Colm Toibin in the past has been somewhat up and down. A few years ago, now, for example, my wife read The Blackwater Lightship and hated it. ‘You’ll hate this,’ she told me. Only for me to find that, when I got around to reading it, I thought it was great. Conversely, when I picked up The Master, excited because I’d enjoyed The Blackwater Lightship and enthused because of the kind of press the book was getting, I was disappointed because the book didn’t live up to expectations for me. Which may explain, in part, why, when Brooklyn (Toibin’s fifth novel if my maths are up to scratch) dropped through my letterbox, I was what you might call ambivalent. Neither feverish with excitement nor heavy with dread. I had a bit of a ‘should I read this myself or send it out for review?’ moment. As it turns out, I’m extremely glad I decided to save this one for myself.
Brooklyn begins in Enniscorthy in the south-east of Ireland in the early 1950s. Our attentions are focused upon a young lady called Eilis Lacey who lives with her mother and her elder sister Rose. Work is hard to come by (Rose works at the local golf club but Eilis has to make do with working in a local shop for an uppity snob called Miss Kelly) and, since her father died and her brothers crossed the water to Liverpool, the three of them have to make do as best as they are able. Leastways until a visiting cleric called Father Flood informs them that he thinks he could get Eilis some work in the States. Young Eilis is spirited away (in a tumltuous interlude that sees our young heroine vomiting in swaying corridors down in third class as her boat tips and swells on the high seas) to Brooklyn, given a room in Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house and a job fronting the counters at Bartocci’s, a forward looking clothes emporium. It is here, in Brooklyn, that Eilis meets herself, emerging out of the shadow of her childhood to become her own woman, taking night classes in book-keeping, attending dances and, in time, finding romance with a young Italian boy called Tony. Inevitably, though, heartbreak and disaster are around the corner and the novel climaxes in the kind of situation William Trevor is a past master in: two worlds, each of which seems like a dream when viewed from the other, each of which could be viewed as an interlude if one life were to continue and another to end.
All told, Brooklyn is the kind of novel that should win prizes, the kind of accessible literary novel that could transform casual readers into committed readers, a bridge book, if you will. The writing is luminous and beautiful (Toibin’s sentences the kind of sentences any writer would kill to have crafted), the plotting gentle, the structure intricate and yet seemingly precarious. When disaster occurs (unexpected disaster at that, not the disaster you expect, not the disaster you plan for in your mind), you find yourself bitterly caught up in Eilis’ own pain and turmoil – Brooklyn unravelling like a film in your own mind, any time away from the book a rude interruption (the novel left on pause in your mind, the characters poised and waiting for your return). What’s more, it comes as an immensely refreshing change to read a book in which the narrator isn’t playing tricks, isn’t witholding information from the reader, isn’t seeking to elaborate upon a puzzle – is instead looking to edify and entertain and transport. Which, in some ways, places Brooklyn in a loftier tradition, askance of current literary developments perhaps but all the better for that.
Any Cop?: Impossible to recommend Brooklyn more. If you only read one literary novel this year… The kind of book guaranteed to send you scurrying off to read other Toibin novels you may have missed (I just picked up The Story of Night from Amazon). Absolutely not to be missed. Essential.