I’m not entirely sure I know why Colm Toibín’s Brooklyn is not simply a shorter, quieter Maeve Binchy novel. Which would have been fine — I love Maeve Binchy. And at a glance, you can see my confusion: Eilis Lacey, a young woman in Enniscorthy, Ireland, is maneuvered by her family into emigrating to Brooklyn where there will be more opportunities for her than there are at home. Pushing her out of the nest is her beautiful, accomplished elder sister Rose, whose earnings have largely supported the widowed Mrs. Lacey and Eilis herself.
What’s different from Binchy, though, is what Toibín achieves through sheer authorial control. It’s a kind of sleight of hand: I would have to read the book again to see if I could catch him at it. Because what he manages to capture is nothing less than the expansions of Eilis’s consciousness and ultimately, the rewards and the costs involved.
The structure is pretty simple. The first section of the book takes place in Enniscorthy, the reader’s sense of the town radiating outward from the Lacey house on Friary Street. This is the part that’s familiar from Binchy: the sense of the dense web of small-town relations. But rather than stepping back a bit to direct the reader’s attention to this, Toibín writes strictly from Eilis’ point of view, and she barely notices. This is the water she swims in: how could she have words for it?
Not until Toibín narrates her ocean crossing do we grasp how limited her experience is: she is seasick without being able to identify what is happening to her, for instance. She arrives in Brooklyn to find a place ready made for her, with a job and a room in an Irish boarding house, but merely being there exhausts her: “For each day, she thought, she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away, get it out of her system so that it did not keep her awake at night or fill her dreams with flashes of what had actually happened and other flashes… full of rushes of colour or crowds of people, everything frenzied and fast.”
One of the interesting choices is that Toibín doesn’t specify the time period right away. You sort of home in on it: there are cars, women wear stockings, they talk about “the war.” It’s very different from the usual scene-setting of an historical novel. Nothing is mentioned unless it stands out to Eilis. She builds a life in Brooklyn, a more spacious, self-determined existence. She is barely aware that she’s doing so. Only when she returns to Ireland does the change become apparent.
So where, I kept asking myself, is the conflict? Where is the lure that keeps the reader turning the page? The tone is scrupulously measured, almost flat, almost clumsy. Toibín passes no judgment on anyone’s character or behavior and has no interest in charming the reader. Yet I found myself describing the book as “lovely,” perhaps because of the author’s generosity and earnestness and sympathy as Eilis tries to work out the definition of the word “home.”