Notes On “Brooklyn”

We’re on summer break here at RW, but that doesn’t stop us writing… or reading! So a bunch of us gathered at Caversham’s Alto Lounge earlier this week for the group’s annual Book Night.

Hosted and curated by the year’s Don Louth award winner, it’s a good excuse to read something that may be a little outside our usual comfort zone. You don’t have to like the book. In fact, contrary opinions make for a more interesting discussion.

Steve Partridge had the honour this year, and he chose Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Winner of the 2009 Costa Book Prize and adapted into a well-recieved film last year, the book sparked a frank exchange of views over a couple of drinks and some nibbles.

Here are Steve’s notes on Brooklyn, which you could use as a framework for your own critical analysis of the book.


 

I heard Colm Tóibín being interviewed on Radio 4 about 9 months ago. I’d never readanything by him so I decided to try Brooklyn. Recently I haven’t been reading literary novels. I’ve had my head stuck in thrillers, so it came as a bit of surprise to read something that wasn’t quite but was close to plotless.

It was interesting to research Colm Tóibín and find out he says he doesn’t favour storytelling. By which, I assume, he means he’s not interested in writing the merry go round of conflict between a set of characters driven along by three or four interconnecting plotlines, ending with a set of specific conclusions devised to solve problems and deliver satisfaction to the reader. But he is interested in writing about the truth of the human condition within the context of a set of circumstances. i.e. a literary novel not a compulsive page turning story.

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Colm Tóibín

He does this very well in Brooklyn. Starting in a small town Ireland in the post war period of austerity Brooklyn explores the themes of Irish society at home and in Brooklyn and living away from family with the church assuming the role of guardian angel. The dilemma of remaining loyal to established family when loss occurs or remaining loyal to a new husband an Atlantic ocean away and adjusting to live in an embryonic multi-racial society.

Tóibín’s prose is plain and understated but is satisfying to read. It has something in common with Marilynne Robinson and Sarah Walters in its ability to draw the reader into the characters, making them believable and real – nurturing, rather than imposing a need in the reader to know what happens to them. Peeling back the onion rather chopping it up.

Eilis Lacey lives with her widowed mother and elder sister Rose in Enniscorthy inIreland. Her brothers have left Ireland to work in England, so Rose the is the bread winner for the three of them. Eilis can only find weekend work for herself in a local shop owned by the frustrated and nasty Miss Kelly. Rose plays golf at the local golf club, where she meets an old acquaintance, a priest on holiday from New York who says work can be found for Eilis in Brooklyn. He says Brooklyn is a home from home because of the large Irish community.

Here I think the novel touches, if not exceeds the point of improbability. It’s difficult to believe that Rose is able to support three adults on the salary of a wages clerk and be a member of a golf club as well. Although as a device it does allow the author to move across the class/social divide in a small Irish town.

We then follow the naïve Eilis on her journey across the pond into an all-female lodging house in Brooklyn where she encounters a sympathetic mother hen land lady who tries, but doesn’t succeed in imposing a convent like discipline on the girls who are her guests. After a rocky start working in a departmental store and huge bouts of home-sickness, Eilis starts evening classes in book-keeping and meets a young Italian plumber (Tony) at an Irish dance. Again I thought the explanation for an Italian being at an Irish dance was a bit divisive. ‘I prefer Irish girls.’ But given the commonality of religious beliefs it’s acceptable.

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Saoirse Ronan in the film adaptation of “Brooklyn”

The relationship is developing when suddenly Eilis receives the news Rose has died. Before she returns to Ireland she marries Tony and of course promises to return to Brooklyn. On her return to Ireland she doesn’t tell her mother about her marriage and through a close friend meets an eligible young man called Jim Brennan. Her mother, wanting her to stay in Ireland, encourages the relationship until Eilis finally tells her she is already married, after the ‘ugly sister’ Miss Kelly threatens to spill the beans. She reads a clutch of unread mail from Tony and returns to Brooklyn leaving her mother alone in Enniscorthy.

The main characters Eilis, Rose, The Priest, Tony and the boarding house owner are strong and believable. The minor characters add authenticity in terms of bitchiness, deviousness and humour. The novel is really a set of linked short stories which describe a rite of passage of a young girl set firstly in an economic and romantic wilderness (small town Ireland) on a journey to the Promised Land (The USA) and back again and back again to the USA, at first driven by opportunity and then by love, textured with guilt. The sadness of the mother at the end is intense. It reminded me of the sadness at the end of Home by Marilynne Robinson.

The themes are similar today for economic refugees from the middle-east. When prospects are poor the young will always be attracted to the promised-land and the old will nearly always be left behind. (Although the U.S.A may soon have reduced, if not zero attraction as the Promised Land, as indeed may the U.K.)

I love the way he writes, great rhythm, very understated. Brooklyn feels almost a fictional documentary, which is a sign of excellence, maybe greatness one day in Ireland?


Some thoughtful stuff from Steve. Thanks to him and our social secretary Juliet England for organising a fun, inspiring night out.

 

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