Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a flat-out beautiful novel. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes it so good except for the fact that it simply is good, that it’s written with a careful eye for details and with a loving sense of its characters. There’s such craft and affection in it that, even though very little happens, I found myself riveted.

I’m barely exaggerating when I say nothing happens. Eilis has to leave her small Irish hometown, go to Brooklyn for work, and find a new life for herself. There are no external threats, no witnessing of major historical events, no two-faced or diabolical people. Instead, there’s just life, life so rich in detail that it’s almost like experiencing it yourself.

One small early scene turns on the way she gets sea-sick on her journey across the Atlantic. She needs to use the bathroom, but she and her cabinmate have to share one with the cabin across the way. Those people, seasick themselves, have locked the door against them, so she has to get sick on the floor. Toibin gets the layout of the room across with seeming ease, and the experience plays out almost as if it’s on stage. I can see the shape of the lock, the dimensions of the cabin and bathroom, and even the tile of the floor (which he never mentions but which seems to follow from that level of detail).

We see similar scenes in Brooklyn where everything is new, and that may be the cleverest convention Toibin uses: the whole city seems striking in its not-yet-discovered quality. As Eilis discovers her new home, we discover it through her eyes. Her loneliness is real and moving. Her hunger for new experience clashes with her ignorance of American mores, and her sense of “home” gets gradually redefined. For most of the novel, the only surprise is that nothing surprising seems to happen. (In fact, for a long time I found myself comparing it to Flaubert’s “Un Couer Simple,” the first major literary effort to write a book “about nothing,” about the life of a Simple Heart trying to discover happiness in a world where other lives seem more interesting than her own.)

I’m a little less sure how to feel about the end of this. When [SPOILER] Eilis’s sister Rose dies unexpectedly, she decides to return to Ireland and tell no one that she has married her American boyfriend. That relationship has unfolded gradually and, necessarily, in an American idiom. It’s felt right, like the proper culmination of her transformation from an Irish girl into an American woman. Suddenly in Ireland again, though, she weighs whether she’s happy with that transformation, whether she’d willingly trade the America she’s come to know for the straightforward simplicity of Ireland.

She has temptations in Ireland, temptations unavailable to her when she was first there. It becomes clear that, if she’d have had a chance at the bookkeeping job at home and a shot at the appealing young pub owner, she’d never have left for America. But she did leave, and she has made the soft possibilities of America into hard realities. The dreams and what-ifs are in Ireland now. It’s in America where she has something real and defined.

I confess I was at first a bit frustrated by the sudden end, but I trust the deep quality of the prose here. That tells me that Toibin knows what he’s about, and his insistence that the story has ended means it must have. And I see nor that ending reinforces the beginning: Eilis has made a new life for herself. It isn’t perfect, and it certainly doesn’t answer all her dreams. But it is an accomplishment, and it does promise a great deal of happiness.

I feel a pang for Eilis as she leaves Ireland once again at the close of the novel, but I know she’s off to a real and a human life as well. She’s made her choice. She might have made others, but there’s no guarantee she’d have been happier. She’s living a rich and human-sized life, one full of ordinary experiences amplified only through brilliant story-telling. And it’s our privilege, for the duration of this brief novel, to live that life alongside her.

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