‘Love and Summer’

"Love and Summer"

ETA: A basic assumption of this review has been rather conclusively blown out of the water in the comments: somehow, I’d managed completely to misremember 2009’s Booker shortlist. Go me! Still, Love and Summer is still a deeply decent read…

Ever since John Self read and rated William Trevor’s Love and Summer last year, I’ve been wanting to get around to reading it. To some extent it was knocked back by reading 2009’s Booker shortlist – deeply unfair on it, as was its exclusion from that august company. It is a tender and clear-sighted tale of a youthful love affair in the small Irish village of Rathmoye. Its setting is indeterminate, Rathmoye’s stifling inter-connectedness as likely today as it might have been in the 1950s, which feels the closest fit if we were forced to choose one. The best we get is the clue that the novel takes place “some years after the middle of the last century”. The summer of the title is certainly seasonal – events take place over a few months, and end at the onset of autumn – but the closeness and stretched quality of both personal relationships and time exhibited in Rathmoye echo the qualities of uncomfortable, but lazy, days.

All of which is to suggest that Love and Summer is a quite careful novel: it is intricately plotted and intimately characterised, and even the most initially extraneous detail will, in the intensely shared environment of Rathmoye, prove significant. There is a Jamesian aspect to the novel, then – all internal monologue and pained interiority – which calls to mind Trevor’s countryman Colm Tóibín, and indeed Love and Summer reminded me distinctly of the latter’s Brooklyn, a novel which did manage to make last year’s Booker shortlist. Despite criticisms of 2009’s clutch (it was all ‘historical fiction’ and thus rather limited, apparently), it seemed to me that the novels were actually quite separate in time and approach; and so, surely, it was a straight contest between Trevor and Tóibín, two writers stumbling upon similar times and travails.

It’s a shame Brooklyn won out. Not because it is a bad novel – in fact, it’s exquisitely observed, and as John Mullan is noting in the Guardian at the moment, expertly executed. But Love and Summer, which most resembles the Irish scenes that bookend Brooklyn, achieves in its narrower focus a far greater versimilitude: its village gossip isn’t a caricature, its tortured pasts are equally torturously revealed, rather than slap-dashed across the page in the brief scenes allowed them. There’s something about the way in which Trevor slowly – again, carefully – reconstructs the pained histories he hints at from the very first page which makes their awful tragedy all the more acute.

Most interestingly, the way in which his character deal with this acuity is to disassociate themselves from the past. Some, such as the main female character, Ellie, can barely remember their past, their recalled childhood spent in the stasis of a convent; others, such as Miss Connulty or Ellie’s husband, Dillahan, are in denial or refutation of their pasts, suppressing their previous selves and attempting, with varying degress of success, to craft a new identity – almost a new person, a denial of self. Rathmoye, of course, cannot – will not – forget, and this puts it at odds with the novel’s strangest character, Orpen Wren, a former archivist whose memory now plays cruel tricks upon him, mixing past, present and future into an incomprehensible – and oddly comforting – melange.

Into this strained atmosphere appears the male half of Ellie’s summer of love, Florian. An Irish-Italian semi-bohemian of dubious motivations, he is at first introduced as a kind of hero, but ultimately might seem to some readers a picture of irresponsibility. The passion he arouses in Ellie is never quite recipocrated by him – although he certainly acts on whatever feelings he does experience – and the love affair of the title is something less than the sun-kissed idyll we might expect. Indeed, Trevor’s key success is to defy expectations: the withered and embittered village matriarch Miss Connulty is one of the novel’s most humane characters; Dillahan’s moment of revelation spins on an axis quite different to the one we are led to predict. The novel finds a way to judge each character on their own terms. One might suspect a novel such as this, written by a prose master such as Trevor, of concentrating on a perfection of the commonplace. It goes one better.

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.