There’s a saying we have in Ireland that you’d nearly think was coined for Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn. Namely, if you’ve the name of getting up early in the morning you can lie till lunchtime. And it seems to me that Tóibín lay too long when he wrote Brooklyn. Not that he didn’t try. He tried very hard but I can only conclude that he was attempting something which was outside the range of his considerable writing skills: to make a silk purse out of a story in which the protagonist is an immature and uninteresting young woman who is biddable to the point of outright servility and clearly not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree.
Tóibín’s failure to give of his best here surprised me. After all, he is among the most acclaimed of present day Irish fiction writers, the man who gave us the exquisite The Heather Blazing and the heartfelt and enduring The Blackwater Lightship. It seems to me that with Brooklyn he persevered with the writing long after he must have fully realized that his novel wasn’t going to be what he had hoped for.
To summarize the plot without spoiling the ending: it is the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey allows herself to be pushed by her mother and older sister into emigrating from the small Irish town of Enniscorthy to New York. On arrival there she settles uneasily into a humdrum job, goes to night classes which help to open up the possibility of a good career, meets a romantic Italian called Tony, drifts into marrying him – telling nobody back in Ireland about this – and then returns to Ireland alone after she gets word of her sister’s sudden death.
Weeks pass in Enniscorthy during which time she is courted by a local man whom her mother wants her to marry. Now Eilis is the most conventional of girls, yet she procrastinates about returning to her husband in New York. It is worth remembering here that in the 1950s a woman’s choice of husband was almost always deemed to be irreversible, especially if the couple were Catholic, which Eilis and Tony were.
Unlikely scenario? Yes. And what follows is even more unlikely. And frankly bland. Tóibín’s touch is too light here. In his attempts to describe the ordinary and recount Eilis’s thoughts – sometimes using what I would call dribbles of consciousness – he only succeeds in making me feel that nothing of note is happening. And this reminds me of a conversation that he had with Professor John Mullan at the Guardian Book Club in which Tóibín recalled the "important" (unfortunately nameless) US novelist who had responded to his description of the plot of Brooklyn by saying “That would bore me to death". “It is an argument we can still have over what you can do with plot and story in a novel," Tóibín observed to Mullan.
Very true. If your story is mundane and the characters are almost uniformly insipid and mildly irritating then you can’t do a lot with the plot. Brooklyn is not so much a slow burner as a guttering candle flame that throws out little light. It is largely lifeless and dispiriting, most unworthy of the outstanding writer Tóibín is. However, I’m told by people whose word I respect that his descriptions of life in small-town Ireland and big-time New York of the early 1950s are spot on. And I applaud him for that. But this is supposed to be much more than social history. This is a novel and the authentic backdrops are not enough to make me warm to the story or its taciturn characters.
Colm Tóibín is much given to understatement – sometimes even no statement – and here he has learned from the Irish master of restraint John McGahern. But when reading Brooklyn I was aware of being nudged – prodded at times – into accepting that often words don’t need to be said, or more often are unable to be said.
Brooklyn was first published in 2009 and won the Costa novel award as well as a variety of plaudits from the critics. It then slowly faded from view. But it was reborn in the shape of an exceptional movie of the same name. I went to see it a few days ago on the recommendation of my daughter who had described it to me as “a heartstringer”. An odd word of hers but I soon knew what she meant. It is a transformation of the original. Screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley have taken the novel by the scruff of the neck and invested it with a classic beauty that engaged my emotions like few other movies have done.
The whole thing is stolen by an actress called Saoirse Ronan who plays the part of Eilis. This Eilis is so different from the colorless character in the novel. In place of the girl that I couldn’t believe in (and who literally doesn’t know whether she’s coming or going) I got to watch someone who made the original story make sense. Ronan is rarely off the screen and her grace, vibrancy and composure must have made her director’s work a pleasure. Added to this is a galaxy of stars that carry the plot to a powerfully emotive conclusion.
Tóibín has cause to be grateful to all the people involved in the movie because it has brought about a great resurgence of interest to his novel and will no doubt win him many more readers than he would otherwise have had. And he can take heart from the words of an illustrious predecessor in Irish literature: Brendan Behan. Behan’s The Quare Fellow had its London première in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in the East End of London. Littlewood was one of the most innovative directors in British theatre and had a flair for rewriting scripts. And her production of The Quare Fellow was a triumph. A standing ovation followed that first performance and Behan couldn’t wait to get up on the stage to put the audience right.
“I would like to thank Miss Littlewood,” he told the audience, still on their feet, “for putting on a play that was far better than the one I wrote.”
Colm Herron is the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland, and his newest novel The Wake was released last November.