Apr 11, 2011

Notes on Brooklyn

If you’re the kind of reader who is impatient and loathes narratives where nothing much seems to happen, where the tragedy is rather undramatic and where the characters resemble and behave much like we would and totally unlike what we have come to expect from our fictional protagonists, Colm Toibin’s celebrated ‘Brooklyn’ is definitely not for you. The book is so quiet, so reserved, so shorn of any sudden dramatic development that you often wonder, ‘How is it all going to end?” It’s a slim book and when some 2/3rds into it, no great misfortune had befallen its heroine Eilis, I did begin to feel a little restless.

Added to the oomph-less narrative and heroine, Toibin also chooses a kind of historically dull timeframe in which to set his story. Though the narrative shifts between two continents, there is no effort to link it or reference it against other notable events unfolding in the larger world outside. All Toibin is contended to do is hint in passing at questions of racism in the US, the mass-scale immigration of the Irish to the US, the gradual extension of NY city and carefully controlled undercurrents of lesbianism. However, none of them are at the core of the story here which is about a young girl named Eilis. Nothing about her life or her character is remarkable and in choosing a heroine as oridnary as her, Toibin seems to be staking claim to some superior feeling of kindredness to all humanity. This is what impressed me about Brooklyn – in this it is also reminiscent of Tagore’s beautiful poem ‘Shadharon Meye’ (ordinary girl). Literature is usually about the extraordinary, the astonishing, but it takes a special kind of insight and tenderness to work with material that is so likely to go unnoticed in a crowd. That is Toibin’s triumph is this beautiful novel.

Eilis’ story opens in Enniscorthy, Ireland – a country ravaged by the war and a failing economy. Most young men have left for England to seek their fortunes, including Eilis’ three brothers, and all that the young women can look forward to is make a suitable match before their time runs out. Even qualified girls like Eilis have no hopes of employment and will settle for anything like she does initially.

Events are set into motion when Eilis’ elder sister Rose confers with a visiting American priest, Father Flood, to send her to Brooklyn in search of better prospects. Contrary to expectations, Eilis is neither overjoyed nor excited at this news for “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.” However, in what will soon emerge as her dominant trait, Eilis displays a strange passivity and does not demonstrate any resistance to this plan. Even as she becomes aware that, “it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it,” she chooses the path of least resistance.

After a rather gruelling crossing of the Atlantic, she reaches her destination where she finds work as a sales girl in a large departmental store. Father Flood also arranges for her to stay with Mrs Kehoe who runs a lodging house for young girls. It is here that Toibin introduces one of the most moving passages on what the immigrant perhaps feels like when s/he is suddenly transported to a place where nothing is familiar and one is adrift in a sea of new faces and experiences. This feeling is probably keener for those who are forced to this experience and have not chosen it willingly. Eilis grieves because, “She was nobody here. ……. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty.” I recall saying something to this effect in near tears one day to A when i was trying to fill gas in the US. I couldn't seem to get anything right - the proper way to insert the card, the way to open the fuel chamber. It was all new and all too much to learn. While it is fashionable to say that change is a part of life and the only constant, Toibin seems to be saying that its inevitability does not necessarily take away the pain of its occurrence.

As the days pass, Eilis divides her time between her work at the store, helping Father Flood in the feasts and dances that he arranges for his parishioners, and her evening classes in Bookkeeping. Eventually she meets Tony, an Italian who works as a plumber and lives in a one-room apartment with his parents and 3 younger brothers. Tony is considerate, funny, vulnerable and charming and while it is far from love-at-first-sight for Eilis, loneliness and a simple desire to belong, makes her accept Tony over time. The courtship with Tony is one of the most realistic pieces in the book and while readers may be exasperated at her slow, cautious, dispassionate and slightly removed stance, it is wholly in keeping with the character Toibin has etched so far that Eilis is neither smitten nor head over heels in love with Tony. When Rose passes away suddenly, Eilis has to return to Ireland and this is where the novel throws in its unexpected googly.

We have been expecting with a sense of growing foreboding that something untoward is sure to befall this simple, unambitious, timid girl just when she has found some measure of happiness in Brooklyn but what ultimately happens is what you never expected. As Eilis returns home and to her old life, she discovers that this is where she belongs, this is where she’d rather be and this is the only place where she has any real hope of happiness and true love. There is nothing really that beckons her back to Brooklyn or is there? Eilis who has forever been buffeted by the choices others have made on her behalf, is finally given a chance to decide things for herself.

There is something subversive in the novel’s close where Toibin slyly questions the nature of the freedom to be had in the great land of freedom and opportunities for someone like Eilis who is too reticent to voice her wishes, too young to imagine the consequences of such reticence and the price it will extract from her, someone who is too selfless to imagine that it is no crime to seek personal happiness. True, America is the land of opportunities but they will remain unavailable to some because they will be defeated by their meekness. These are the meek who shall never inherit the earth and what's more, the world will not even remember them. Therein lies the tragedy of Toibin's work.

I didn’t shed a single tear while reading the novel, nor is there any one passage that stands out in intensity. But as you read the last line, you sense a dull ache within, the kind of ache that accompanies the realisation of failed chances and closed opportunities; the kind of pain that you feel when someone intrinsically nice is singled out for a life of disappointments.


ramblings said...

seems beautifully gentle and sublime, as does your review too! :)

drift wood said...


Actually you're right - it is a very sublime book - in structure, characters, poignancy, everything.

Shoumitro said...

you lure me to read it!

drift wood said...


Do try it. I am fairly positive, you'll love it.