Novel that could touch soul of the nation


A gesture of writer Colm Tóibín led me to read his deeply moving new book, writes JOHN WATERS.

OCCASIONALLY, OUT of the ephemera of day-to-day media, something remains to transcend the vindictive sentimentality of standard public discourse. I experienced this recently with part of an interview in this newspaper with the novelist Colm Tóibín.

He was talking about Michael Fingleton, the once celebrated banker, more recently newsworthy for darker reasons than before. “I was in the Conrad Hotel this year,” said Tóibín, “and Michael Fingleton came in, alone. I was proud to stand up and shake his hand. He gave me my first mortgage when he mightn’t have, when I wasn’t the most solvent person in Ireland. And I think, if you’re going to do witch-hunts, you should do your own personal one. Pick your own people. But joining an Irish witch-hunt against priests or bankers, I don’t think so.”

There is something movingly, deeply decent about this that marks it apart from the scapegoating, finger-pointing and hate-dressed-as-moral- righteousness that have infected our public conversation in the first year of the post-Tiger era.

It contains both an embrace and a rebuke, an arm placed around the shoulders of the excoriated and a stern dismissal of the Pharisees who stand expecting to be praised for their excoriations. It struck me as the kind of thing writers and artists should be doing more of.

Something in Tóibín’s outstretching of his hand to one leper of the recession made me pick up his new book at the airport and read it on a round trip to Paris. I know Tóibín, going back years. He was extraordinarily kind to me when I first came to Dublin. There was a cooling later, over something complicated, and afterwards a resumed friendliness with an adjusted sense of reserve.

I always believed that, sooner or later, Tóibín would write a truly great book. This promise was visible, to begin with, in his 1980s journalism in Magillmagazine, in the profound and passionate understanding he seemed to have of the nuance of Irish life and the way he often camouflaged this with a sardonic wit directed at reassuring the cultural vicinity that he was not getting too smart. But it became visible, also, in his fiction – in particular his second novel, The Heather Blazing, which unwrapped the inner life of the High Court judge Eamon Redmond in a manner as relentless as the coastal erosion that provided the book’s defining metaphor.

His next few novels were less promising, seeming to be directed at the construction of a reputation in London and New York. Highly skilled and beautifully crafted, they did not make you want to rush up and tell people in the street about them. They were read and celebrated, but the great book seemed to have been delayed, perhaps by Tóibín’s need to prepare its path.

And now it has come, or perhaps the first such great book by Colm Tóibín has come, and at a moment when, for reasons that appear to be accidental, it may touch the soul of this nation as few books can expect to.

Just after reading Brooklyn, it is hard to use the kind of words that would be necessary to do it justice in a small space. One shrinks from “magnificent” or “breathtaking”, not because these are not deserved epithets but because among the effects of the book is a kind of contagion of understatement.

To read Brooklynis a strange and moving experience – perhaps because of how it opens up and envelops you in its way of seeing. The protagonist, Eilis Lacey, leaves the Enniscorthy of the 1950s to seek a life in New York. That is sufficient about the story, which becomes the spine on which is unfolded the inner reality of this character who might have been my aunt or your grandmother. The achievement of the book is that, in a voice that is not Eilis, not Tóibín, not some god-like narrator outlining some indisputable chronology, it takes us into that hidden space in the human heart between the desire that moves and the things that happen. This voice might be some fusion of the protagonist’s self- awareness with the imposed commentary of the culture, or it might be some knowing angel too polite to state things starkly, but the effect of it is mesmerising. In the life of Eilis Lacey, we see the patterns of our own lives, how the real is what is nearest; how home maintains a pull until our lives move in spite of us to weaken it; how the things we “decide” are often decided for us, in the undertow of the culture and the mysterious nature of reality.

In this book, we can see Tóibín the artist merge with Tóibín the journalist to file a deeper kind of report than anything you would expect to read in the newspaper, adhesive to the grain of the culture and painstaking about what John McGahern insisted on calling “the facts”.

As we wait for global conditions to improve sufficiently to dispatch us backwards to the past, Brooklynis a book that will move you to tears for your aunts and for your children and for yourself.

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