Scribner: 272 pp., $25
Colm Tóibín leads a generation of Irish novelists, born in the 1950s, who have achieved wide international readership. Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle, Neil Jordan and Patrick McCabe have long been admired abroad; Ronan Bennett, Dermot Bolger, Hugo Hamilton, Kerry Hardie and Niall Williams are more recent presences. It is a remarkable flowering. Before them, only a few Irish novelists born since 1922, when James Joyce published “Ulysses,” had comparable success: William Trevor (1928) and Edna O’Brien (1932), who spent most of their creative lives in England, then John Banville (1945) and John McGahern (1934) toward the end of his life.
Among that impressive group now in their 50s, Tóibín, with his growing list of international awards, has emerged as the novelists’ novelist, a writer whose stylish, elegantly crafted stories of calm surfaces and agitated depths carry genuine urgency. Although he has distinguished himself across genres, having published five books of nonfiction and a play, edited four anthologies, written journalism and book reviews, his reputation is based primarily on the five novels he published between 1990 and 2004. They have established him as his generation’s most gifted writer of love’s complicated, contradictory power.
Compressed, understated in the face of intense feeling, Tóibín’s fiction places sensitive, isolated individuals in situations of extreme emotional pressure. In “The Heather Blazing,” winner of the 1993 Encore Award for best second novel, Eamon Redmond, a remote, aging, rigorously objective Irish high court judge, is awakened from dispassion to compassion when faced with swarming memories during a summer visit to the coast. In “The Blackwater Lightship,” a 1999 Booker Prize finalist, young Declan Breen, dying from complications of AIDS, brings his estranged sister, mother and grandmother together to confront the rubble of their family’s past. In “The Master,” a 2004 Man Booker Prize finalist and winner of a 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, novelist Henry James must confront public humiliation after the failure of his play while coping with his suppressed sexuality and erotic yearning.
Buried deep within
“The Master” was Tóibín’s longest and most ambitious novel. Now in “Brooklyn,” his sixth novel, Tóibín offers a scaled-down work, the formally restrained account of a young woman’s ragged, almost unconscious struggle for independence and self-expression. While akin to his previous novels, “Brooklyn” is Tóibín’s most subdued, reflecting its main character’s inner life, where access to her profoundest emotions and needs and her capacity to articulate them for herself are deeply buried. It is an intimate novel about a woman -- and a community and culture -- crippled by an inability to find or express intimacy.
In the early 1950s, Eilis Lacey lives with her older sister, Rose, and their widowed mother in the small County Wexford town of Enniscorthy. Their three brothers have moved to England for work, leaving the family’s females to a life dominated by unthinking, ritual behaviors within the confines of community, church and home. Eilis studies bookkeeping; Rose, more sophisticated, more self-possessed, works in the local mill’s office and provides most of the family’s income. Gossipy, closed in on itself, Enniscorthy seems to offer barely enough oxygen to sustain life. Or happiness. After Eilis begins to work Sundays for a nasty shop owner, she entertains Rose and her mother by imitating her employer and realizes “that this was the first time they had laughed at this table” since their brothers had left for Birmingham.
Then Eilis is given a chance to emigrate to America and escape the stifling environment that shaped her. As orchestrated by Rose and a Brooklyn priest with Enniscorthy roots, Eilis is to work for a department store in Father Flood’s parish, complete her bookkeeping studies at night and see what opportunities emerge.
This straightforward, familiar plot leads to predictable results. After a vivid struggle with homesickness, a time when “nothing here was part of her,” when everything seemed “false, empty,” Eilis gradually begins to shed old country ways, even under the scrutiny of her Brooklyn landlord and Father Flood. As Eilis’ work and studies progress, she discovers joy in “the mere sensation of savoring the prospect of something.” This is not a familiar feeling for her -- and neither are the stirrings of love she soon feels for an Italian plumber named Tony. He is “not like anyone else she had ever met,” being open and tender with her. Moreover, “he was delighted by things.” This, perhaps more than any other quality, astounds Eilis. Delight is a feasible human response!
Tóibín is strong at depicting the way restrained passion works. But leaving Enniscorthy has not allowed Eilis to be suddenly transformed into a woman fully in touch with her feelings or capable of expressing them. She moves more slowly than Tony, and intimacy is strange territory for her, but she seems almost ready to let go, breaking the grip of her past, when she is summoned back to Enniscorthy.
The novel’s final movement, as the couple part and Eilis, back in Ireland, must figure out where her heart belongs -- in Brooklyn or Enniscorthy -- is when Tóibín’s storytelling faces its greatest challenge: Will “Brooklyn” conform to the requirements of romance? Will Eilis’ character as we know it lead her to make the choices we believe she must? Has she changed or is she “the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew”?
Here Tóibín, writing about the crippling power of conformity, bursts the bounds he has established for his story. Form echoes theme in the novel’s final 50 pages, as Eilis acts in ways that challenge all we thought we (and she, and everyone) knew of her. This is Tóibín’s central point, the crux of his otherwise conventional, 1950s love story. Freedom and authenticity occur when we are able to surprise ourselves. Eilis, bereft of all that once made her actions and choices clear to her, is adrift in a world where nothing feels certain or recognizable. Thrown upon her own devices, she seems heartbreakingly herself at last.
Skloot’s recent books include the memoir “The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer’s Life” and “Selected Poems: 1970-2005,” winner of a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn. Book Award.