6 September 2015

Post Facto: The Brave New World of Brooklyn

Today's Post Facto column is about a book I recently fell in love with.

There are books you can read all the way through without knowing what you think of them—like some people. There are books that annoy you from the word go—also like some people. And there are the rare ones that reach out and touch you, surprising you with the warmth you feel towards them though you've just met. I knew Brooklyn was one of these by page 40.

I'd only heard of Colm Tóibín, I'm ashamed to admit, when he was nominated for the Booker Prize for The Testament of Mary in 2012, and even then I did not follow up on my curiosity. But on a recent visit to a bookshop, Brooklyn leapt out at me. Bookshops, one is sadly in danger of forgetting, can be magical places. Suddenly, instead of shadow beings to be conjured into being with the guilt-ridden clicking of my mouse, real creatures beckoned from the shelves, each displaying its particular attractions: lightness or heft, honest blues or mysterious purples.

I cannot say whether it was the faceless girl on the cover who intrigued me, with her summer dress stopped from billowing by objects on either side, or whether the lovely diner-style type in which it said 'Brooklyn' in gold letters triggered in me a subconscious nostalgia for a New York five decades before I lived there. All I know is that I put away my biases – 'a book about the Irish in the 50s must be a tragic tale of poverty and I don't feel like one of those', or 'oh, an older man writing a book that seems almost entirely about a young woman character, how good could that be?' -- and bought it.

And a novel hasn't felt so right to me in ages. You feel like you know Eilis and everyone in Wexford—and by extension, what it felt like to live in an Irish small town in the 1950s. Tóibín has a way of making his characters come alive through the words they speak, and without the use of anything so trite as adjectives. One of the first people you meet in the book is Miss Kelly, who runs a grocery shop where Eilis works part-time. Here's a sample of Miss Kelly's dialogue, as she initiates Eilis into the job: “Now there are people who come in here on a Sunday, if you don't mind, looking for things they should get during the week. What can you do?”

But Wexford is only one of the novel's locales. The other, of course, is Brooklyn. It is a fairly standard story – the family needs money, and there's no proper job for Eilis in Ireland. So her mother and sister arrange to send her to America via the good offices of an Irish priest who assures them that it's safe. “Parts of Brooklyn,” Father Flood replied, “are just like Ireland. They're full of Irish.”

And so they are. Before long, Eilis is ensconced in a Brooklyn lodging house run by the Wexford-born Mrs. Kehoe, where her co-boarders are Irish or Irish-American, and her social life is dominated by the Friday dances at Father Flood's parish hall.

And yet this is a brave new world, where things are certainly more mixed up than back home in Ireland. At Bartocci's, the department store where Eilis works as salesgirl, a new brand of stockings in Sepia and Coffee shades is a deliberate invitation to the hitherto-invisibilised clientele of “coloured women”. Eilis' night classes include a Professor Rosenblum, who makes “jokes about being Jewish”. And after she meets Tony, her experience opens up to what is clearly the other big community of Brooklyn immigrants: the Italians. One of my favourite scenes in the book is the first time Eilis is invited to dinner at Tony's, where among the first things his little brother does is to declare that “We don't like Irish people”. As you might expect of Italians, the fact that a family of six is packed into two rooms does not preclude the serving of a magnificent meal. To read Tóibín's description of Eilis puzzling over the bitterness of the coffee, and trying to eat her spaghetti “using only a fork, as they did” is to recognize the surmounting of cultural barriers I hadn't thought of.

The delineation of Eilis's coming of age, both her growing confidence and her fears, is wonderfully fine-grained. There is an enormous sense of quiet in this book, and yet we feel each moment of Eilis's anxiety. Massive changes are taking place in her life, and yet we see her searching for events she can put into the letters she writes home. There is too much she cannot tell. Most obviously, about Tony. Then she goes back to Ireland, and now she cannot tell Tony...

Tóibín is a writer of great emotional intelligence, laying out in deceptively unruffled manner a young woman's gradual recognition that the shape of the man she marries is the shape of her future. The choice between two suitors and the lives they represent is of course at least as old as Austen. But this made me think of Rajnigandha, Basu Chatterjee's 1974 film. Rajnigandha moves between Delhi and Bombay, while the story it was based on, Mannu Bhandari's 'Yahi Sach Hai', located itself in Calcutta and Delhi. Eilis's dilemma is made even deeper by the near-unbridgeable gulf between continents.

Eilis's combination of determination and naivete held my interest completely. She isn't perfect, but Tóibín's delineation of her imperfections is done with such tenderness as to draw you even closer to her. I can hardly wait to read Nora Webster.

Published in the Sunday Guardian, 6th Sep, 2015.

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