Irish memoir ‘Brooklyn’ veils tedium

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a novel for those who look forward to their nostalgia. The book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Costa Fiction Award, is self-effacing in style. With telescopic accuracy, it focuses on the life of a young, female Irish emigrant named Eilis, who travels to Brooklyn for the opportunity to start a career. It is set in the 1950s, around the time of the author’s birth. At times the narrative seems, with its light touch and careful distance from its subjects, to be a book about the author’s putative parents.

I will refrain from spoiling the plot, which unfurls as leisurely as real life. This is not to say that nothing happens. Eilis finds various kinds of companionship, community and love. She copes with cold indifference and the death of someone she cares about. Throughout, her struggle seems to be one of loneliness. Tóibín does a masterful job of illustrating, with carefully circuitous passages of blank narration, exactly how little Eilis understands those around her and how few and precious the connections she does make are. It is not a happy book warmly lit with coddling or acceptance. Nor is it a book about tortured alienation. The tone it strikes is somewhere in the middle, in the melancholy of the simple and everyday. Unlike Pete Hamill’s North River, a book similar in theme, it does not find refuge in domesticity. It’s not a feel-good book, but it may well be a good book.

Tóibín’s style is at once intimate and austerely off-putting. Even when he narrates Eilis’s feelings, he does so with a storyteller’s distance and a refreshing departure from the contemporary trend of tortured omphaloskepsis. He creates a narrative that seems more suited to oral tradition than to the page. What should be clear language is somehow opaque, and the prose circles repetitively back around the same themes. When Eilis thinks about her boyfriend, for example, she returns again and again to certain bits of description, reinforcing her impression of him and building the same tenuous picture that is all we have, or that she has, of any other character in the book. Reading Brooklyn made me acutely aware of the insubstantiality of these sorts of descriptions and how very little it is possible to know about others through experience alone. This barrier is probably due in part to the limitations of Eilis’s perspective. She is, if not simpleminded, at least methodical in her thought and little given to large ideas or anything bordering on the transcendental.

Tóibín tells Eilis’s story remotely, as if removed from inevitable time. While the flavor of nostalgia his narrative style imparts is tasty – a little like meatloaf – I had to question where all of it came from – a little more like hot dogs. Both are good if I want a meaty medium for the always-enjoyable ketchup of nostalgia, but the one is more complex and the other is generically packaged inside a uniform skin. On the whole it seemed like the sort of story my grandmother might tell, with a similar level of detail, but unquestionably at a distance from its own setting. In one way, this narrative technique lends authenticity to the story. In another, it seems like a cheap way to avoid inhabiting the setting or the main character as fully as possible.

If you like your oral histories written and enjoy the luxuriant feel of a slow-paced, old-fashioned storyteller’s story, I recommend Brooklyn. If you are impatient with distance from a protagonist and might ask for a little verbal innovation, I do not. While the story is beautiful, its individual sentences are plain. They may be psychologically acute and realistic, perhaps, though the glass of distance often got in my way. But I was not verbally dazzled by the book. Rather, I was lulled. Perhaps the soporific effect is what some seek and indeed, it was a very easy book to read and even interesting to ponder. I found psychological verisimilitude inside. I found masterful technique of a certain kind. As I have said, it may well be a good book. I certainly learned a lot in the way of literary technique and pacing from its pages. Sadly, I did not enjoy it.