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As you might expect, everyone in Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn is wonderfully animated. A mere sprinkling of words on the page is all it takes to get them going.
Miss Kelly slowly came down the stairs into the hallway and turned on a light.
"Now," she said, and repeated it as though it were a greeting. She did not smile.
Eilis was about to explain that she had been sent for, and to ask politely if this was the right time to come, but Miss Kelly's way of looking her up and down made her decide to say nothing. Because of Miss Kelly's manner, Eilis wondered if she had been offended by someone in the town and had mistaken her for that person.
"Here you are, then," Miss Kelly said.
But it is always Eilis who registers what we see, and her eye is steadiness itself. Miss Kelly's reputation (as reputations do) precedes her:
She knew Miss Kelly by sight, but her mother did not deal in her shop as it was too expensive. Also, she believed that her mother did not like Miss Kelly, although she could think of no reason for this. It was said that Miss Kelly sold the best ham in town and the best creamery butter and the freshest of everything including cream, but Eilis did not think she had ever been in the shop, merely glanced into the interior as she passed and noticed Miss Kelly at the counter.
Who is this paragraph about? Miss Kelly? Eilis? Eilis's mother? But that's what reputation is: a web that binds each of the people in a town to everybody else. And Eilis, to a greater extent than any literary character that I can think of, lives in a world of reputations. Eilis lives in the world. What she "really feels" remains somewhat mysterious, but without being at all mystifying: what we don't know doesn't bother us. We never "wonder" about Eilis. Instead, we share the marvels of her adventures. Her society becomes our society.
Brooklyn is about an Irishwoman who is sent off to America to make her way in the world. Young, unemployed, and without a beau (almost certainly because she is too bright), Eilis can't be permitted to drag on her mother's small pension, or to crimp the stylish wardrobe that her sister's accounting job makes possible. The funny thing is that Eilis has wanted to move away, following her brothers to Britain. This has been discouraged. For lack of anything better, Eilis has taken a job as a shop assistant with the town's carriage trade grocer, and the vicissitudes of the position — Miss Kelly is a great humiliator — have, it seems, forced her mother to rephrase the question. An amiable priest, visiting the town from Brooklyn, is now seen to offer a better future. Far from grasping at the opportunity, Eilis is bemused.
Her mother had been so opposed to her going to England that this new realization came to Eilis as a shock. She wondered if she had not taken the job in the shop and had not told them about her weekly humiliation at Miss Kelly's hands, might they have been so ready to let this conversation happen. She regretted having told them so much; she had done so mostly because it had made Rose and her mother laugh, brightened a number of meals that they had had with each other, made eating together nicer and easier than anytime since her father had died and the boys had left. It now occurred to her that her mother and Rose did not think her working for Miss Kelly was funny at all, and they offered no word of demurral as Father Flood moved from praising his parish in Brooklyn to saying that he believed he would be able to find Eilis a suitable position there.
Why is Eilis dispatched to America? It is a question of money, of course. A question of sustenance, ultimately. We are not so very far from the world of peasants, in which personal inclinations can be only rarely indulged. Once the idea that Eilis will be able to support herself in Brooklyn has been planted, her mother and sister accept her departure without a shrug. The sooner she is gone, the better! She is much loved, but love must bow to practicality.
Eilis knows this, and yet she feels it, too: she knows the love, and she feels the rejection. Perhaps it is the duality of nearly every important sensation that makes it impossible for Eilis to express her thoughts to anyone, even to the boyfriend with whom she falls in love. The tug, which would be tragic if it were not so routine, between what Eilis wants and what is expected of her, silences the effort of speech. Eilis's life is too taken up with considering what other people want, either for or from her, for her wishes to crystallize, at least during her first years in Brooklyn. And yet the selflessness that is forced upon her by her environment, whether at home in Enniscorthy or in her very nearly as Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn, is not a cross; Mr Tóibín clearly does not see his heroine as a figure of Dickensian pathos. On the contrary, the self is something that Eilis becomes adept at slipping out of.
Tony was so wrapped up in the game that it gave her a chance to let her thoughts linger on him, float towards him, noting how different from her he was in every way. The idea that he would never see her as she felt that she saw him now came to her as an infinite relief, as a satisfactory solution to things.
Eilis has some very bad nights on her voyage to America; in steerage, she is forced to share a toilet with elderly ladies who, foreseeing a rough crossing, bolt the door against her. She has a few bad nights in Brooklyn, not when she arrives but when the first letter from home catches up with her. These miseries she suffers in silence. But when the letter summoning her back to Ireland arrives, she walks out of her boarding house and goes straight to her boyfriend — who then walks her home, with results that feel both surprising and unavoidable. Even then, however, there is no discussion. The notoriously voluble Irish never, in Mr Tóibín's hands, say very much of substance.
In most crucial moments, Eilis says nothing — while Mr Tóibín writes around her in an unsentimental deadpan that not infrequently provokes a shocked laugh. In the following passage, Eilis has just learned of a death back at home in Ireland. Her boyfriend and her parish priest have shooed her into the dovecote of her landlady's living room (normally off limits to boarders).
For once, Eilis did not feel it necessary to be polite to Mrs Kehoe. She looked away every time she spoke and did not respond to her at any point. This appeared to make Mrs Kehoe even more solicitous, as she offered her tea at every moment or an aspirin and a glass of water, or insisted that she have something to eat. Eilis wished Tony would stop accepting further sandwiches and cakes from Mrs Kehoe and thanking her for being so kind. She wanted him to leave and Mrs Kehoe to stop talking and Father Flood to go as well, but she could not face her own room and the night ahead so she said nothing and soon Mrs Kehoe and Tony and Father Flood spoke as though she were not there, going over the changes that occurred in Brooklyn in the past few years and offering their opinions on what further changes might occur. Every so often they grew silent and asked her if she needed anything.
"The poor thing, she's in shock," Mrs Kehoe said.
Eilis said that she needed nothing and closed her eyes as they continued to talk among themselves, Mrs Kehoe wondering if she should buy a television for company in the evenings. She worried, she said, that it might not catch on and she'd be left with it. Both Tony and Father Flood advised her to buy a set, and this seemed only to cause further remarks about how there was no guarantee that they would go on making programmes and she did not think she would take the risk.
"When everyone gets one, I'll get one," she said.
The idea that television might not "catch on" is the most fabulously inverted Leprechaun joke that has ever been made, on either side of the Atlantic.
Eventually, of course, Eilis has to go back home. "Home"? For some readers, the final section of Brooklyn will feel like an unbearably prolonged coda. Isn't Eilis's story is over before she leaves Brooklyn? Eilis has claimed herself in Brooklyn: she has done well at her department store job; she has completed a serious business course at Brooklyn College; and she has found a man — although perhaps it would be better to say that the man has found her. All that remains is to apprise her family of the changes in her life: a pretty finale of tying up ribbons. Readers who feel that Eilis returns to Enniscorthy a nearly-naturalised New Yorker may experience uneasy impatience with the young woman as she goes from day to day without telling her mother important things about her life in Brooklyn.
And while she postpones the conversation that threatens to be difficult, she becomes increasingly comfortable in her native town. Mr Tóibín writes as though he were updating a fever chart, dutifully noting changes in temperature without imputing to his heroine anything like the concern that his readers might feel. On her first evening, helping out with letters of condolence, Eilis's detachment from Enniscorthy matters is understandably great.
Eilis was almost inclined to giggle at names she had not heard of, or thought of, during her time in America... [She] could not help speaking. "God, is she still going?"
But by the time her return to Brooklyn is only days away, Eilis has put down roots that feel deeper and stronger than the ones that were cut when she left the first time. Not only that, but the Brooklyn that she knows is twice as alien as the one that she didn't.
The idea that she would leave all of this — the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting — and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now. She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay back with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival.
The power of place is the great theme of Brooklyn. We are where we are, not always where we're supposed to be. In Eilis Lacey, Colm Tóibín has given us an eyewitness to what is there to be seen, not to what is expected or feared. The suppleness of the character of Eilis Lacey will give rise to many debates, I expect, especially among men who have lived with the unblinking quiet of intelligent Irishwomen. That she sees things far more clearly than the people around her oughtn't to surprise us, for Eilis tuned in long before everybody else. (June 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press