The clear voice of a master

Sat, Apr 25, 2009, 01:00

FICTION:There are no special effects or set pieces in Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; just a logical, clear approach that makes it his finest fiction yet

Brooklyn,By Colm Tóibín, Penguin Viking, 252pp, £17.99

DESPITE THE major success of The Master, Colm Tóibín’s 2004 novel about Henry James, the blurb to his collection of stories Mothers and Sonsin 2007 claimed that its final story, A Cold Winter, was his “finest piece of fiction to date”. The claim was warranted by the story’s crystalline style and the relentless inevitability with which its events unfolded. The same virtues are evident in Brooklyn, Tóibín’s masterly tale of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Enniscorthy who emigrates to New York in the 1950s. The novel drives to its conclusion (which, despite its narrative inevitability, it is important not to give away) with the same logic and clarity as A Cold Winter. The novel shares its period and world with the great modern Irish masters: John McGahern in Memoirand That They May Face the Rising Sun,and William Trevor in The Ballroom of Romance. And, as in those masterpieces, Tóibín evokes his periods and places without noticeable resort to any special effects or set pieces.

It is McGahern in particular that this book measures itself against, and it stands up well to the comparison: the highest praise. It has the same kind of miraculous transparency which is achievement enough; but it shares something else which is more surprising in Tóibín. He has not always been the most starry-eyed celebrant of Irish life and mores. But this book, like McGahern’s Rising Sun and Memoir (whose principal title was All Will Be Well, we should remember), is positive in its characterisation, often in the face of the evidence. There is one very striking instance here: the organiser of the book’s events (transatlantic travel, dance-halls or Christmas dinners for the homeless in New York) is a priest with the classic Wexford name of Flood. You wait for some indication of feet of clay, but it doesn’t come. Fr Flood’s idealism remains – refreshingly in the contemporary Irish novel – untainted. Eilis wonders, and asks him, why he is doing it, and he replies it is because he was “amazed that someone like you would not have a good job in Ireland”. If this is a novel without a hero, he is the nearest we get to one. There is a similarly positive, unsensational scene in a changing-room in Brooklynwhen Eilis is being advised on the selection of a bathing suit by her shopfloor boss, Miss Fortini. The older woman’s sexual attraction to the younger is clear, and the mixture of excitement and embarrassment is brilliantly realised. But everything is delicately described and left undeveloped. Tóibín here is gentle with his characters.

If the book has to be assigned a single subject, it seems to be another great theme of the Irish fictional tradition since George Moore, homesickness. And, as in Moore’s famous short story, homesickness here is not one-directional. But in Tóibín’s remarkable treatment of the theme, the spirit throughout is attraction to the present location rather than nostalgia for the absent one. The two poles of the homesickness – provincial Ireland (but even that adjective has too much of the negative to it) and Brooklyn in the 1950s – are evoked with great conviction: small-town, shop-keeping Enniscorthy, and pre-trendy Brooklyn with its Irish, Jewish, Italian and Norwegian populations. Here there are some wonderful set-pieces: for example, Eilis’s visit to a Jewish bookseller who is at first bitter at her ignorance of the Holocaust and then, “suddenly gentle”, sees that she can’t be expected to know anything more precise about it than that it was “in the war”. Social relations in New York, especially held by and between the emigrant Irish of the period, are brilliantly portrayed. Two of Eilis’s fellow woman-tenants of the boarding house (themselves figures of pathos) feel able to deplore a department store which opens its doors to black customers, and they refuse to share meals with an Irish newcomer, Dolores, who is “a scrubber”: “she cleans houses”. Yet it is not so much their sad and desperate small-world snobbery that seems hard to forgive as Eilis’s correct but withering response to it.

So, however kindly portrayed, Tóibín’s characters here are often up against it. It has indeed been difficult for serious Irish fictional writing to recover from Joyce’s imputed paralysis and “scrupulous meanness” in Dublinerswhich has formed a negative, if compelling, tradition. It is perhaps hard to see why the new positiveness in late McGahern or in Brooklynhas arisen now.

But of course, beware! The problem with living in any degree of contentedness is that it can’t last. When Eilis passes her night-class examinations, she is complimented “gravely”, by Fr Flood. “You are marvellous,” he says. “Most people who come to this house without notice need something or have a problem . . . You hardly ever get pure good news.” And so it proves with Eilis’s story. Positiveness is the perfect setting for tragedy and reversal. In this McGahern-like anti-satire, the world is not well lost but it will be lost anyway.

In the end, the moral of this book is fatalism; Eilis does not take control of her destiny – maybe because she is not at liberty to, but we are not sure. Her attachments are understandable and convincing; but they are marked by a resignation which is the other face of inevitability. It is forgivable; but it is disastrous. There is a strikingly effective recurrent image for this: the posting of a letter which the writer thinks is imperfect. In the most crucial of these, Eilis’s brother writes: “I hope this letter isn’t terrible but, as I said, I didn’t know what to put into it.” We too are unsure whether Tóibín is saying that this Hardyesque fatalism (which also seemed to be the spirit of A Cold Winter, set in Spain) is something to which Irish culture is particularly liable.

Acclaimed earlier Tóibín novels, from The Heather Blazingto The Blackwater Lightship, despite their precise observation and narrative compulsion, sometimes seemed to lack a larger meaning or purpose. In this book, following A Cold Winter, there is not a sentence or a thought out of place. And it now takes over as his “finest fiction to date”.


Bernard O’Donoghue teaches English at Wadham College, Oxford. The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney, which he edited, has just been published by Cambridge University Press