Sunday, May 16, 2010

Reading group: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Warning: plot-spoilers. I have found it impossible to report our discussion without disclosing the outcome of the plot of this novel.

Clare suggested this book because a friend of hers who is an Irish professor of poetry had told her that Colm Toibin, none of whose books she had ever read, is the greatest writer, indeed prose stylist, in English alive today. Others of us were interested to read this particular novel, as it has had much praise heaped upon it: it won last year's Costa Award, and was the novel which has seemed to be most quoted in all the recommended and favourite-read lists that pop up all over the place.

This meeting was a particularly disorderly one, for some reason, with people constantly setting up separate simultaneous conversations, so it's not easy to pick out a coherent thread, but I'll do my best.

Brooklyn is a historical novel, set in the 1950s, and tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living in the Co Wexford town of Enniscorthy (which I understand is Toibin's own home town) where there is little or no work to be had, but who is offered work in America. The book follows, via a simple linear structure and exhaustive and almost clinical detail, her prior scant experience of work before the offer (one day a week in a local grocer's), her journey by ship to New York, her work in a department store there and the life of the Irish boarding house in which she lives with several other young Irishwomen, and eventually a dilemma. After some time in Brooklyn she becomes involved with Tony, a young Italian-American plumber, but the death of her elder sister Rose at home means that she must make a return visit. Afraid that she will not come back, he persuades her to marry him before she leaves. However, once she is back at home Eilis finds she does not want to return to America, nor to disclose to anyone her relationship with Tony and the fact that she has married him. Inevitably, she experiences social pressures to stay and take her sister Rose's place as her mother's companion, and meanwhile she becomes involved with Jim Farrell, a young man in the town. Thus her dilemma ensues...

Clare said that she didn't know after reading it whether it was true that Colm Toibin was the greatest living writer in English because she isn't that well read, but she certainly very much enjoyed and admired the book. The main thing she admired about it was the thing for which Toibin is generally praised: his plain, unadorned prose in which the motives and feelings of his characters are not explicitly stated. There was one moment, though, when the painful nature of Eilis's first experience of sex was described very explicitly and in a way that was very truthful - and Jenny and Jo chorused, yes, it is, and the fact that it can be painful is so rarely even acknowledged in literature! Clare had wondered how on earth a man could know such a thing, so she had read up about Toibin and had found an interview in which he said that he had asked a female friend who had described it to him. Mostly, however, the reader is left to infer the feelings of the characters, and it's all very understated.

At this point Doug said dryly that it was certainly understated, and it quickly became clear that, contrary to general critical opinion, several people in the room did not find this a strength in the book. John, who is never one to mince his words, said it was 'F******* boring.' Jo said she couldn't stand Eilis, she was just such a wimp: it wasn't just that Toibin didn't portray her feelings, she never expressed them herself when to do so would have allowed her to take charge of her fate. Indeed, she didn't even seem to have any feelings much: she just drifted off to America when other people told her to, she drifted into her relationship with Tony and married him when he pushed her to, and she drifted into her relationship with Jim Farrell. I said I had to agree that there were many moments when I wanted to wring her neck.

There was now however a chorus of objection from Clare, Trevor and Jenny, who appealed to social reality: that's how young women were in the fifties, they said: they very much felt that they had to conform. I said that it was true that there were great pressures on young women in that era to conform, but that didn't mean that they didn't have an internal life of passions - indeed, it seems to me that one's internal passions become the greater the more you are outwardly repressed, and Jo vehemently agreed. Where, in this book, I said, is the inner life? (For instance, when Eilis hears that her sister back home in England has died, the line we read after the news is 'Eilis said nothing', and that's all in this scene that we know of her reaction. It's true that later we are told - dispassionately - that she can't stop crying, but this leaves us very outside of her experience, and I certainly wasn't moved by her grief. There are other incidents when her emotional reactions aren't even touched on.) Clare said, the emotions may not be stated on the page, but you are meant to infer them. I said but that's not good enough, though didn't get the chance to say why: ie, that it's one thing for an author to imply an inner life without actually stating it, through diction, images etc and thus leave a reader in no doubt about it (indeed, it’s the best way), but if you leave out so much that readers need consciously to make inferences, they can be left in doubt, and the way our conversation(s) then went seemed to prove this point.

Jenny indicated that Eilis didn't have any real passions to infer, by saying that she thought this book was precisely about the fact that people do just drift through life without any real inner passions, marrying the first boring person who comes along etc and then suddenly finding themselves in old age having wasted their lives. Jo and I exploded with amazement. I said, of course people lead boring lives, but you can't tell me that most people don't have yearnings, and a sense of anguish if they feel those yearnings aren't going to be fulfilled. Jenny said, no they only feel anguish at the ends of their lives when they're disappointed. I said, Well, people do marry boring people, but they don't think they're boring, for goodness' sake: they fall in love and love is blind! They feel passion! and Jo and Doug cried agreement.

Jo said, but what was awful about Eilis was that she wasn't in love with Tony or Jim, she just drifted into her relationships with them. Then it turned out that people in the group had made opposite inferences about this, some thinking the same as Jo, but others thinking that Eilis was in love with both men and truly torn between them. (My inference was that she is both physically attracted to and fond of each of them, but not passionately enough in love with either to give up everything else for them. But it is simply how she behaves which told me this: I was taken by surprise when it becomes clear that her relationship with Jim Farrell is physically sexual, and I felt cheated of the emotional journey towards this point, and because I hadn't been on that journey with her, had to wonder consciously as I read it what it meant: has she fallen in love with him? Or is she simply giving in to lust and having a fling? Do I now need to reinterpret some of the scenes leading up to this?) I said that I did very much like the idea, which is actually spelt out in the book at this point, that once you leave home, the home you have left becomes an unreality, a dream, but that if you then go back home, the new life you have made for yourself can become the unreality instead; I have indeed experienced this myself. Others nodded, indicating that they had too. But, I said, I didn't find that it was satisfactorily conveyed in this novel in terms of Eilis's inner consciousness. I said also that although this book has been so praised for its portrayal of a woman, I really couldn't imagine a woman writing something so devoid (shy?) of the emotional dimension (John added: 'She's just a blank!'), and I had noticed that all the reviews I had read praising this book so profusely had been written by men. (Great credit, though, to the exceptionally sensitive men in our group who also missed the passion!) Clare said that she had in fact come across one appreciative review by a woman.

John said that, actually, Eilis struck him as not very Irish, and I agreed: she seemed, in her repression, much more like a young Englishwoman of the time. There was now loud communal objection: of course she was Irish! Very Irish! Irish women at that time were more repressed than English ones! My own appeal to social reality – that Eilis reminded me far more of my Welsh aunts when they were young than my feisty Irish aunt who’d actually been a nun – fell on utterly deaf ears (and I smiled sweetly and bit my tongue when Trevor – who, I hasten to add, has Celtic roots of his own - said that Celts were all the same). John said that the repression of emotion was a very English trait, and he wondered if this is why Toibin’s writing was so popular in England.

Doug said that actually, you know, Eilis wasn’t a wimp: there were times when she stood up to people, including the Brooklyn landlady. I said yes, and she did in fact make choices, (and Doug strongly agreed): there were several occasions when she thought hard about alternative courses of action and made the conscious decision to do nothing. (In fact, these were some of the moments when Eilis came over to me as dislikeable, rather mean-spirited in fact – another function, I think, of the novel having failed to make me identify with her). Now that this had been pointed out, Jo and others had to agree that it was so and there began to be general puzzlement, rather than disagreement, about how we were meant to take Eilis.

Ann now spoke up for the first time and said that she had found the book a really tedious read. All the detailed descriptions of the grocer's shop in Ireland, the lists of things on the shop shelves and the ways they had to be packed, of the voyage across and the berth in the ship, and of the department store in Brooklyn and the way all its processes worked, of the domestic arrangements in the Irish boarding house - all of this, as far as Ann could see, was just research which had been included for the sake of it. Clare, Jenny and Trevor and even Jo now said, But they had loved all that! They loved finding out, for instance, that one bathroom was shared between two berths on a ship, with a separate lockable door on each side, and that when your berth was deep down in the bowels of the ship you especially felt the force of the waves. They then spent some time recalling many such things in the book that they had relished. I said, But your interest in all these things is anthropological, and that's not relevant to whether or not they operate towards creating a powerful novel, and people did then generally agree. Ann said that the episode on the ship, with the relationship that's built up between Eilis and her berth-mate, seemed especially inserted for its own sake, leading nowhere in the overall plot of the novel, although it had been given enough attention and space and had been recounted in such a way (with detail and dramatisation) as to make you think it was going to. Ann said, Compare this novel with Toni Morrison's Beloved, which we discussed last time, where every single thing that was mentioned or portrayed was deeply significant to both the plot and the theme of the novel. I agreed, and said that for much of the time that I was reading Brooklyn I couldn't help thinking that this was a real-life story that Toibin had been told by an aunt about her own life, and had failed to shape satisfactorily into fiction, and Ann nodded vigorously. In any case, I said, unlike others I found much of the description too flat to be interesting in itself (and Ann, Doug and John nodded agreement). For instance, I said, one of the things I remember very vividly from my early childhood is the metal canisters containing bills and change that zoomed on wires across a department store in Barry in South Wales, from the counter to the high-up cashier's desk and back. But Toibin's description of this in the Brooklyn department store was so flat that I felt cheated. The others had said that they loved the description of the Sunday-night dance in Enniscorthy, but I said that I had experienced those small-town dances, and what I missed in this description was their overriding atmosphere of aching(a quality you wouldn’t miss, for instance, in a writer like Edna O’Brien).

Trevor now said that one thing that he found very frustrating about this novel was that in a book of 250 pages nothing actually happened until page 170 when Eilis gets word in Brooklyn that her elder sister Rose back home has died, and most people agreed. I said that this point was really interesting: whether or not nothing significant does happen up to that point. In fact, when you get to the end you do realize that some of what has seemed inconsequential is after all significant. This particularly applies to Mrs Kelly who owns the Enniscorthy grocer's shop where Eilis works before she goes to America: right at the end a connection will be revealed between Mrs Kelly and Brooklyn which will be Eilis's undoing. I did say that this was the one thing I found moving about the novel: the revelation at the end that in spite of the sense of dislocation and isolation in emigration, the world is after all a very small place and those controlling forces of home can't be escaped. However, it seems to me that the surprising revelation of this connection does not arrive for the reader with as much of the satisfaction (and shock) of underlying inevitability as it might, because of the lack of resonance in the way Eilis's time in Mrs Kelly's shop is portrayed, with an imbalance of clinical, list-checking attention to the details and processes of the shop. Jenny said, but what that description illustrates is the control of the older women over the younger ones in these small societies (and there was then some very interested discussion of this social fact, and the fact that in some apparently patriarchal societies it's actually the women who hold the real power).

This led on to a discussion of Eilis's mother at the end of the novel, and the way that she behaves when Eilis finally reveals that she got married in America. As with the question of whether or not Eilis is in love with Tony and Jim, people had different ideas about Eilis's mother's feelings and motives, and indeed were more uncertain about them. Some saw her as shocked by the news and consequently punishing Eilis, others saw her as merely upset and unable to cope with the fact that it meant Eilis would have to leave her. It turned out that several people had missed the fact that it wasn't actually news to her; that she had known, or at least guessed, all along, and had chosen to ignore the matter while Eilis said nothing about it. Her apparently resolute avoidance of asking Eilis anything whatever about her life in America is thus explained: it's a way of sweeping under the carpet an unpalatable fact which, if acknowledged, would in all morality have to take Eilis back to America and away from her.

How had she known, when Eilis had never even mentioned Tony to her in her letters? Well, there are clues, but the trouble is that the very flatness of the prose and the authorial refusal of evocation of emotion with which they are presented in the course of the novel, mean that they are submerged in the profusion of other detail which is of no particular narrative significance - which is why, I think, some in our group missed this major revelation. The book, it turns out, does have a subtext, but because it reads for most of its length as if it doesn't, it loses much potential resonance. Ann said that if she hadn't had to finish the book for the group she would have given up on it very early on as clearly leading nowhere, and several of us agreed.

Clare, however, stuck up for the book and repeated that she had enjoyed reading it very much.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.
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