Sunday, 18 April 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I am well aware of the craft involved in writing of such clarity and apparent simplicity, and the maintaining of a deliciously straightforward plot, but good god Toibin, did you have to make such an infuriating heroine! She is supposed to be reasonably intelligent, but manages to do nothing clever; she is supposed to be good but is a moral coward; and she is so damnably self-conscious - ceaselessly - that one yearns to jump into the book and tell her to forget herself for a moment and start living. Set this against William Trevor's riff on Brief Encounter, 'Love and Summer' (both these books are versions of Coward's genuine masterpiece), and you will conclude that perhaps 'Brooklyn' might have done better as a short story: Eilis would not have had time to lose our sympathies.


  1. I finished this book this week too, and it never occurred to me to be irritated by Eilis. I didn't feel the need to judge her morally either - is she a self-conscious vacillating coward?. Don't know. She just seemed very human to me. Someone who often did things to please others whether it was the job in the village shop, the trip to Brooklyn, or the trip back. The book seemed more to me about how you judge the reality of any given situation. Is going back to Ireland like being woken from a dream, as she says. Or will the few weeks in Ireland themselves be judged a strange dream the more she lives in Brooklyn in the future. The book is about a specific period in a woman's life when she is surfing the waves of such dreams and perhaps realising that it's not about choosing your life or reality, but having events choose it for you. I liked the book very much.

  2. She avoids telling the truth whenever it would be awkward, and although I agree that that is something we all do, it isn't very attractive. The overwhelming sense at the end of the book is that - just as with every other departure/arrival - she will soon settle back into Brooklyn, and Jim will be as forgotten as Tony. Wilis, through her moral cowardice (this is not a judgement, but a fact) messes up Jim's life, Tony's life (she has pbviously married him under false pretences) her mother's life and her own. It may be that Toibin means this as a cautionary tale. I could have stomached that had Eilis more spirit about her (be unashamed!) so that the game was harder to call. I felt sorry for Jim and for Tony but not an iota of sympathy for her. I'm hard as nails, that's the thing!

  3. Or is this about Chelsea?

  4. Or did someone like Eilis once do it to you?
    Remember her age. She is young.
    Remember too how strong realities become mere ghosts once time and distance are involved - see holiday romances for details.
    A more positive read of her character (or the tale) might be - a confused young girl forced into exile, meets her love, is forced back home by family and sense of responsibility, almosts forgets her love, but remembers it just in time, and it sets her free.
    The stronger ghost (out of Jim + Tony) wins.

  5. But she doesn't remember her love - she goes back in order to avoid shame. She goes back out of duty; she goes from her passion. Your point about holiday romances is a good one, in that it is true; however, we are not dealing here with holiday romance. A great part of the book is taken up with an almost formal courtship, which turns out to have no binding power (her "promise" is not kept). but to be truthful it is not her moral failings that get my goat, but her blasted self-consciousness, her constant weighing up of the effect her words might have 9whereas she seems to have no compunction about her deeds). I think Jim is damn lucky she left... May I add that i don;t think it is a bad book - just one with a disagreeable (at least to me) heroine.