The Virtue of Quiet: Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn”

As soon as Eilis returned to her classes at Brooklyn College the baseball frenzy became worse. What surprised her was that she had noticed nothing of it the previous year although it must have been going on around her with the same intensity. Now she had returned to her routine of seeing Tony on Thursday nights after class, on Friday nights in the parish hall and on Saturday for a movie, and he talked of nothing except how this would be the perfect year for him if they could be together, Eilis and himself, and if Laurence and Maurice and Frankie could be with them too and if the Dodgers could win the World Series. To her great relief, he made no further mention of having kids who would be Dodgers supporters. [pg. 162]

"Brooklyn", by Colm Toibin
"Brooklyn", by Colm Toibin

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a quiet novel. I bought it just before Christmas on the strength of all those end-of-year recommendations in the papers, and in the week I finished it Tóibín went and won the Costa Novel Award for it. Significantly, it saw off Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to win that prize, despite not even making it the Booker shortlist which Mantel went on to dominate. Brooklyn is a very different book to Wolf Hall, which is all vast canvases and wild ambition, so in a sense there can be no surprise different judging panels will rate it far higher than others. It does seem strange, though – and stranger in the light of the outright Costa win – that it didn’t even make the Booker shortlist, because it is so very finely wrought a book.

Quiet, though – very quiet. The passage above implies many of the book’s peculiarities: a focus on the internal, a modesty of style and of ambition, and a dry, sardonic humour. The book is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irishwoman who emigrates from her native Enniscorthy – an economically stagnant town from which her three older brothers have already fled, and in which her mother, increasingly propped up by the powerful presence of Eilis’s only sister, Rose, has fully settled – to the USA. Father Flood, the Irish priest to whose Brooklyn parish Eilis travels, is shocked that a girl of her potential can secure only the merest of Sunday shop jobs in Ireland. America is presented to her, as to so many other Irish, as a land of opportunity and excitement. “Eilis was aware that going to work in America was different from just taking the boat to England; America might be further away and so utterly foreign in its systems and its manners, yet it had an almost compensating glamour attached to it.” [pp. 31-32]

Notice that ‘almost’. Eilis isn’t sure she wants to go to America, is never convinced that what she is going to is worth what she is leaving behind – which, of course, she returns to near the end of the book and must explicitly compare and contrast with all she has gained. Brooklyn resists the temptation either to romanticise or demonise the USA. In his review of the book in The Independent, Aamer Hussain argued that, “there isn’t enough psychological contrast between her American sojourn and her return to make her dilemma entirely convincing.” This misses the point: there is no real psychological contrast between America and Ireland for Eilis. Whilst in America she successfully takes her accountancy exam, we see her studying for it in Ireland on the very first page of the novel; where she meets a man, Tony, in America there is no sense that she would not meet a similar man at home – indeed, we are introduced to several; and, ultimately, she works in a shop in Brooklyn as in Enniscorthy (notably, it is always Brooklyn – never quite Manhattan). Whilst economic necessity forces Eilis to leave her hometown, that is all which does: Brooklyn is the anti-immigration novel, in which horizons are constrained wherever the immigrant goes.

This moderation, this passivity, is part of Eilis’s character as well as the novel’s. Over at the Asylum, John Self can’t really be argued with when he says that “the book is written in a low-key tone which, while entirely appropriate to Eilis’s personality, frankly lacks oomph.” But this careful tone is so much a part of the book’s project, of character and of theme, that it can’t be seen as a fault per se. Self admits that the book’s precision is astounding; the control Tóibín shows is masterful stuff, and Eilis is undoubtedly fully realised as a person in the course of its pages. Tóibín does not dictate her character so much as allow it to express itself. Every line is telling, every word properly chosen. The book is also full of incident – Eilis’s Brooklyn boarding house is one of real character and atmosphere; the sexually frustrated Miss Fortini, for whom Eilis works at the department store, has a few choice scenes, as so too do most of the supporting cast; and there are social, economic and racial issues brought into modest play, too. For this combination of unity of tone and variance of experience alone, the book deserves its award.

Perhaps, though, it falls a little foul of what Niall found problematic in Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia the other day: it is so very perfect, without a hair out of place, that there isn’t much energy or life to it. But it is hard to hold a stylist’s control against him, and Brooklyn is a book of such gorgeous understatement that it would also seem a tad churlish to do so. It might be fairer to say that the book doesn’t stretch itself further – and yet, again, it is so avowedly focused on Eilis that in doing so it would have betrayed itself. I was struck by Ruth Scurr’s comparison of Brooklyn with James’s A Portrait of a Lady, in which style and character are likewise fused. When Eilis returns home to Ireland, she quickly falls into old patterns, another self she holds at arm’s length from her American one: “Everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her,” Tóibín writes. [pg. 231]  Eilis’s passivity bestows upon all her experiences the qualities of a dream; she drifts between the few options life allows her, and her reflections on those options are eloquent but rarely grand. Eilis is a quiet, at times distant, girl; and likewise, Brooklyn is a quiet, but beautiful, little book.

Don’t hold that against it.


2 thoughts on “The Virtue of Quiet: Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn”

  1. Pingback: @Number 71

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