Colm Toibin and Brooklyn

I am a lover of the novels of Colm Toibin. I recently read his new book, Brooklyn. The summary of the story can be found in this review. (I won’t delve into the details of the narrative because I am more interested in discussing the main character and her slow development into a woman of purpose and interior strength.)

Her name is Eilis and to me she is a metaphor for the long history of migration of Irish people from their homeland. It is always a challenge to confer so much historical weight onto a single individual. Nevertheless, Toibin achieves something very special in Brooklyn. Eilis is for the most part rather vague not only about her choices, but also about the way in which she feels about the people she meets. There is a sense one gets that she is propelled forward not so much by a deliberate plan, but by the process of human interaction. There is never any clear sense of purpose to her decisions. She allows her intuitions to envelop her and as a consequence even her descriptions of encounters and places are understated. Even the man she later meets and marries is never fully flushed out as a character.

This minimalism is Toibin’s way of moving the narrative from Proustian detail to to the rather paradoxical realism of human thought and action. Post-hoc, all human decisions seem to have very concrete reasons attached to them. The everyday flow of life allows for few moments of self-reflection. Even when self-reflection is present, it cannot be articulated other than through memories. The present is always disappearing and with it many of the details of thought, decision making, and doubt. Eilis cannot clearly articulate either her attraction to the new life she builds in Brooklyn or what she misses about Ireland. She speculates in a fragmentary way about her job, her living circumstances and her mother and sister.

More remains hidden than is visible and this is Toibin’s central theme. It is also the theme of his novel about Henry James, The Master. Language cannot reveal the depth either of thought or feeling, but language can propel both reader and writer into an imaginary reconstruction and imagination mixes and matches truth, desire and reflection. There is an extraordinary scene in which Eilis describes what happens to her when she goes to a dance at the local church in Brooklyn. She is alone and watches as others find partners and let go of their inhibitions. She sees the man whom she later marries. The physicality of the dancing is measured against her sense that she is unattractive and that her past is more of a liability than a help to her. But, in between these self-doubts and anxieties, she grabs hold of the essence of her decision to leave Ireland. It has as much to do with the fact that her family wanted to help her find a new life as it did with the rather mundane reality of Ireland itself. Eilis who never wanted to plan her future now finds herself not only planning but projecting ahead about her circumstances and her potential.

This is the shift from being an immigrant to becoming a local. It is a shift experienced by many generations. Suddenly all that was familiar recedes into the background. Home is still home, but a new reality has been layered onto the old. This is how personal history and the broader historical context we share develops. This is why it is possible to imagine a new life even as one’s former life suffuses every conversation and experience. As Eilis manages all of this complexity, she matures. The seeming banality of the everyday becomes a glorious pedestal upon which she can stand and survey her present and her future. She has finally found a vantage point to examine her feelings and with that she leaves her home far behind. It is Toibin’s brilliance that brings all these elements together and at the end of the novel there is this deep sense of satisfaction that Eilis has become someone we know and someone whose future seems bright and rich.