Saturday, August 08, 2009

there and back again

Irish novels often feel like familiar territory. In almost every one a character heads off to America in hope of a better life. So Brooklyn, with its central story of just that journey, seems like a good place to start my voyage into Booker waters.

This is a novel about a couple of years in the life of Eilis Lacey. And that is both its strength and its weakness - because a novel that has such modest aims relies heavily on the ability of that character to engage the reader. And there Eilis struggled for me.

Eilis is supremely passive. Life happens to her. Major decisions are made for her, and she goes along with them. She assumes there are no other options, but she doesn’t even look for them. I felt little connection with her, perhaps because there was so little substance to connect with. In fact the only glimmer of life came when grief visited. As if until then she was a blank slate waiting for pain to write its message on.

‘Somehow, she thought, if she could look at him, take him in clearly when he was not trying to amuse her or impress her, something would come to her, some knowledge, or some ability to make a decision.’

It seems clear that Colm Toibin intended Eilis to be this way, and he succeeded in maintaining that throughout, but in creating such a passive character inevitably the novel itself took on a lot of her character. At times I felt I was drifting through it, floating from scene to scene, with my attention only partly engaged.

Thankfully my partial engagement took notice of some of the background details which gave my reading greater satisfaction. Many of the minor characters were lively and entertaining. I was particularly fond of the wily Mrs Kehoe. The dialogue of minor characters often brought scenes to life and offered genuine humour in places -

‘No one likes flies,’ Miss Kelly said, ‘especially on a Sunday.’

I also loved the significant role of letters throughout the novel. It is letters that firstly arrange her passage to Brooklyn, and once there Eilis comes to experience her Brooklyn largely through what she chooses to share or omit from her letters home. A times letters hold offer both good and bad news, and in the end they remain unopened and unreplied to signalling Eilis further decent into passivity.

Brooklyn is an example of good old-fashioned linear storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a calm voyage with Toibin at the helm, although at times I felt like we were barely moving. Admittedly we got to our destination but I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed a few more choppy patches.

1 comment:

Yolanda said...

I really want to read this one.