Imagine a fictional heroine who is the embodiment of A Good Person, with only one minor flaw — honest, hard-working, kindly, intelligent and so on. Her flaw? Whenever she is faced with conflict, she always opts for the path of least resistance, often letting others make her choice for her. What happens to her?
Hang on, you say. Fiction is littered with such heroines. Molly Theale in Henry James The Wings of the Dove. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. A whole gallery of young women in the fiction of Jane Austen. The answer is obvious: an evil person comes along, gains her trust, exploits her and the result is ruin.
Okay, let’s add another assumption — take evil out of the equation. Every person our character comes in close contact with does his or her best to be as decent as possible and act in the interests of our heroine. Now what’s the result?
Eilis Lacey is just such a heroine in Colm Toibin’s new novel, Brooklyn. And he has set himself the daunting challenge of creating a supporting cast in which evil — or even simply bad will — plays no part. The result is an intriguing, if somewhat frustrating, book.
We meet Eilis in Toibin’s familiar territory of Enniscorthy, southern Ireland, around 1950. The post-war years have not been economically kind to the town and her three brothers have already headed to England to seek work. Left behind in the family cottage are her aging mother, her older sister Rose (who is prettier, more sociable and more employable than Eilis) and our heroine. Eilis works Sundays in the only shop in town that is open that day (and does good work) but fulltime employment is not on the horizon.
Toibin wastes little time in setting his challenge in motion. Rose returns from the golf course to announce that Father Flood, an Irish priest now residing in America, will be coming for a visit. Eilis soon figures out that it has already been decided without consulting her that she will emigrate to America, Brooklyn to be exact.
A manipulative sister and an equally manipulative priest exploiting our heroine? Quite the opposite:
One evening, when Rose invited her into her room so that she could choose some pieces of jewellery to bring with her, something new occurred to Eilis that surprised her by its force and clarity. Rose was thirty now, and since it was obvious that their mother could never be left to live alone, not merely because her pension was small but because she would be too lonely without any of them, Eilis’s going, which Rose had organized so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry. She would have to stay with her mother, living as she was now, working in Davis’s office, playing golf at the weekends and on summer evenings. Rose, she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family.
Father Flood proves equally reliable, finding Eilis employment as a sales assistant in a department store (but with the hope of perhaps getting promoted to the office), a nearby room in a boarding house for single Irish women and the kind of immigration documentation that would be required to pass through Ellis Island and into America.
Toibin cannot resist having some fun with Eilis’s voyage in third class, introducing an American berth-mate whom the reader is certain will turn into an ugly American cliche — but she too looks after Eilis throughout the voyage, even selecting her clothes and makeup so as to attract minimum attention from the immigration officers.
Things are not totally pleasant in Brooklyn (homesickness is definitely an issue) but neither are they miserable. Eilis’s employer is more than decent; her landlady bumps her up the priority list at the boarding house into the best room in the house. Father Flood has organized Friday dances at the local parish church and Eilis reluctantly attends (she does a lot of things reluctantly, it has to be said) and eventually is taken up by Tony, an Italian who has snuck over to the Irish church and become entranced with her.
Various minor conflicts have arisen along the way and Eilis has consistently taken the path of least resistance. Surely, now, the author will abandon this conceit and Tony will prove to be an utter rogue. He does not and becomes yet another character who wants to contribute to what is best for Eilis.
We are about two-thirds of the way through the book at this point, due for a major conflict and one does in fact arise. Toibin has written himself into a bit of a box at this stage. Is everyone in the book still going to be so damn decent? Will Eilis ever actually take a risk and make a considered decision? Good fiction depends on escalating, not avoiding, conflict. How is the author going to end this thing?
Alas, this reviewer has written himself into a similar box because to supply answers to those questions would be a terrible spoiler. From here on, you are on your own.
I like Toibin as an author and I very much liked this book, but that endorsement does come with some caveats. Toibin has always preferred the contemplative to the active and does carry it to an extreme in this novel. Good as she is, Eilis is a frustrating character and it is hard not to wonder: “Won’t she ever actually do something?”
Toibin is best known for his last novel, the award-winning The Master, his imagination of the life of Henry James, and Brooklyn is certainly not as ambitious a work as that one. In many ways, it is an expansion of some of the stories in his short story collection, Mothers and Sons (reviewed here), where he also explores what happens to passive characters, albeit in less depth.
I also want to emphasize that there is much more to this book than the theme on which I have chosen to concentrate. The book does consider the mid-century Irish diaspora, the situation of immigrants in New York at that time and there is some exploration of racial issues that are arising in the America of the day. Other reviews have addressed these themes (I am rather late into the game on this book) and I have not bothered to repeat them.
If you have not yet read any of Toibin’s books, I would not start with this one — depending on your tastes, The Master, Mothers and Sons or The Blackwater Lightship would all be better candidates. If you have read and liked some of his previous work, I would certainly recommend Brooklyn — while it is not as ambitious has some of his previous books, it is very good writing from an author who knows what good writing is about. A somewhat unconventional novel, it is also a rewarding one.