Monday, October 12, 2009

Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn

It was purely coincidence that the novel I read directly after I read Sebald's The Emigrants should be Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn, but the two invite some worthwhile comparison. Although the reasons for the diaspora of the Jews from Europe should never be minimized by comparison with widespread economic diaspora such as that from Ireland, Tóibín's novel does explore the sad terrain of emigration, however its title might suggest the draw of the new land. And while its narrative structure seems much simpler, more straightforward than Sebald's memoir-imitating work, it echoes some of the earlier work's techniques -- primarily, the focus on what I will call "the small," as well as in the layering of details to create an intimate effect that is, at the same time, surprisingly distancing. We get, for example, many details about the other boarders at Mrs. Kehoe's, the house that serves at em/immigrant Eilis' home in New York, and many details about the food she has there, the way her room is furnished, the store she works at, but we never feel especially invested in her life there.

In trying to think why this should be so, I have to speculate that while these quotidian domestic details build to grant us an intimate portrait of Eilis' life in Brooklyn, they also recall the details offered in the opening pages of her home in Ireland, her impatience with, yet loyalty to, her girlfriends from childhood, her admiration of her older sister, Rose, her wish that her brothers could come home from England where they've gone to earn their living, and her frustation with the stifling limits of her very small community. Wrenched away from this home by a loving conspiracy that sees her sent to try her fortune in a new land, unbearably homesick but determined to repay her family's kind sacrifice, Eilis will now always be divided. As she gradually builds a new life, doing her best in her retail position while taking courses at night toward eventual promotion, she has had to integrate some kind of compromise at her core. Some feelings have to be put away for others to flourish, and learning to put feelings away so thoroughly has consequences. Eilis learns to separate here and there, then and now, and when, after her sister Rose dies suddenly, she makes the dreadful Atlantic crossing again, the reality of her newfound happiness in America is subject to an odd metaphysics such that . . .

Well, I can't tell you that, can I?!

And what I am telling you suggests a rise and fall of plot which is certainly in the novel and which certainly does keep the reader turning pages, but there's something Tóibín does that mutes the drama. Small elements of apparent sub-plots--upsets in the boarding house, for example--get as many pages as supposedly important elements of the novel's romance. The courtship Eilis enjoys in Brooklyn is described alongside her progress at work, and her pursuit of law texts to help her better understand the college course she's taking is balanced by her visits to church and her work feeding and entertaining the displaced men at the church's social evenings. All these threads weave an image of Eilis as an independent, strong, thoughtful, moral, hard-working, and rather ambitious young woman -- teasing us, really, to expect, even to want, a Horatio Alger story for women. Not what we get!

To return, before I'm done, to my opening comparison, I also find something comparable in the tone of both novels, although The Emigrants is suffused with something more tragic than melancholy. But there's a gentle quietness in both; both employ loveliness to observe and to think, honestly, rigorously. Both deserve a second reading, on my part, and I recommend them for a first on yours. Let me know what you think once you've read either. . .

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