Eilis Lacey, the protagonist of Colm Toibin’s new novel, Brooklyn, is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a drip. Eilis is a young Irish shop girl and bookkeeper who emigrates to Brooklyn in the ’50s not out of passion or ambition or desperation, but merely because she is urged to by her kind and glamorous sister Rose and an Irish-American priest, Father Flood, who is back in Eilis’ small town of Enniscorthy for a holiday.
When Eilis arrives in Brooklyn after a vomitous sea voyage, she might as well be in Brooklyn, Iowa, so little interested is she in the strangeness and tumult of her surroundings. (In fact, on her first trip from Brooklyn into Manhattan, she “could see no difference” between the two boroughs, which seems hard to believe; one questions, in fact, whether her Gaelic first name, which an American would pronounce as “eyeless”, is entirely a matter of happenstance.)
And as she pursues her accountancy career, she also allows herself to be pursued by a blond, blue-eyed Italian-American plumber named Tony who loves her and lusts for her far more than she does for him, creating a sense of sublimated frustration in the reader that is probably even greater than the frustration that Tony himself must feel.
But I was very glad I kept on reading this fine novel. There is, to begin with, the character of Tony, whose patient and loving pursuit of Eilis in the face of her passivity and despite an eventual sexual awakening that pulls her in the direction of another man, creates a truly touching love story.
It’s hard to even type the words “love story” these days, so commercialized and compartmentalized has this genre become. But Tony is that rare thing in fiction – a wholly admirable young man who is, at the same time, an un-heroic, ordinary, flesh-and-blood human being. As Eilis responds to his ministrations, and then is called back to Ireland because of an unexpected death, and then deals in her undramatic way with her attraction to another man, and even commits a disturbing act of betrayal that is all the more unsettling for the matter-of-fact manner in which she handles it, it’s hard not to flip forward through the pages of this book to see whether Tony finally gets what he wants – and whether he ought to be wanting it at all.
I won’t give away the answer to the first question. But the answer to the second is perhaps the very point of this novel, as we watch Eilis struggle in her low-key way with whether or not to return to Ireland for good, and whether or not she loves Tony, and finally, whether or not to care for her widowed mother in her remaining years.
There are plenty of other day-to-day challenges as well, as we witness her interactions with the petty shopkeeper who employs her in Ireland, and with her landlady and fellow boarders at a rooming house in Brooklyn, where she is pulled between the proper girls and the party girls, and doesn’t quite fit into either group, partly because of her obdurate refusal to mold herself to the desires of others. As we watch her character develop and deepen, it’s hard not to begin to love her just a little for her quiet grit, and for her determination to be who she was meant to be
This is a subtle and luminous story, with unexpected wit (all the more delightful when the source of the wit is Eilis herself) and a sex scene that ought to win some sort of prize. (There’s a “Bad Sex in Fiction” award sponsored by the British magazine Literary Review; I’m not aware of any “Good Sex in Fiction” awards, probably because there would be too few candidates to choose from. But this one, in which Eilis loses her virginity to Tony, is a swirl of lust, tenderness, pain, panic, quiet humor and complicated happiness.)
Early on in the novel, Eilis thinks to herself of her mother and sister that “(t)hey knew so much, every one of them… that they could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking.” This is pretty much a cliché in English and Irish fiction, but probably has become so simply because it is so true.
Toibin’s achievement in Brooklyn is in taking an emotionally inarticulate character and, through the intervention of events, a fortuitous meeting with a fine man, and her own native strength, transforming her into a real and memorable human being.