Navigating the Writer’s Ethical Maze: Review of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, at Durham Book Festival

Yurie Watanabe
@yurienabe

In his award-winning novel, Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín treats the theme of homesickness with empathy born of personal experience, but also a writer’s detachment. Yurie Watanabe reviews his appearance at Durham Book Festival 2019, for which this novel was the Big Read.

Brooklyn is a deceptively powerful story of a young Irish girl who leaves her home to find work in New York. The novel is striking in the way it portrays – in such detail – Eilis’s life: the happy moments as well as the confusion and struggles, the emotions and feelings as well as physicality, materialism and the environment. The Big Read talk is special even in the context of the larger Book Festival, because in the weeks leading up to the Festival 3000 free copies of the book had been distributed throughout County Durham, to encourage people to read it. The filled auditorium shimmered with a sense of enthusiasm for a shared book.

Cover of Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin‘It’s four o’clock on a Sunday, and Miss Kelly’s shop would be closed by now,’ Professor Stephen Regan began as chair of the talk. The audience bonded as they immediately recognised the reference. At the beginning of the novel, Eilis is offered a job at Miss Kelly’s shop, just on Sundays, after the church service. The shop is busy because it is the only one open. However, the fact that this is the only type of job that is available to Eilis, despite her education and training as an accountant, leaves her with no choice but to find a livelihood in America, leaving behind her family and friends, her hometown, and everything she knows.

Years ago, when Tóibín agreed to teach at a university in Texas, he soon realised what a mistake it was. It was too far away from the sea and too far away from home. And that was only 14 weeks. Another time when he was 20, he traveled to Barcelona. It was an exciting experience, but he found this hard also, being in an unfamiliar place; the main means of correspondence were letters, and Tóibín’s house didn’t have a telephone. Waves of homesickness come and go, and there is nothing one can do but bear it. Although Tóibín’s experience and the readers’ experiences are different from Eilis’, her homesickness is so powerfully portrayed in the novel that one feels it with the protagonist. Tóibín believes that even when writing in the third person, repeating the pronoun ‘she’ can eventually create the illusion that the reader is entering into the protagonist’s mind, and in some cases, it works better than a first-person narrative. However, interestingly, another technique that Tóibín deliberately employed in conveying homesickness was to expand it beyond Eilis’s personal experience. Eilis’s spends her first Christmas day away from home serving food at a church for dislocated people. This was also the passage Tóibín read for the audience.

‘How many are you expecting?’

‘Two hundred last year. They cross bridges, some of them come down from Queens and in from long Island.’
‘And are they all Irish?’

‘Yes, they are all leftover Irishmen, they build the tunnels and the bridges and the highways. Some of them I only see once a year. God know what they live on.’

At first, the men are seen in crowds, a little dirty, smelly, and smoking. Eilis tries to be polite to them. However, as the dinner goes on:

by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender.

By placing Eilis in a larger context of dislocated Irish immigrants, homesickness, but also the experience of finding community away from home, is given a deeper resonance.

The novel is profoundly realist, and one of the informing factors may be that it is based on Tóibín’s experiences. Eilis’ hometown, Enniscorthy, located 100km south of Dublin, is where Tóibín himself is from. The novel is also remembering the older Irish generation, especially working women. Tóibín revealed that ‘A.S. Davies’, Eilis’s workplace, is actually the name of the company where his aunts worked. Tóibín remembers his aunt being very proud that she never made mistakes with the numbers. From his recollections, Tóibín showed that he is very observant – of people, their activities and habits – and those details come to life in Brooklyn. The language, too, rings true. There are phrases that linger in the reader’s mind, for example, when Eilis overhears her mother say about her leaving Ireland, ‘It’ll kill me when she goes’. Stephen Regan suggested that it was a cliché, but one that carries deep emotion. Tóibín, however, with a lighthearted manner, replied that it was a very Irish phrase. ‘I’ll kill you if…’, a mother might scold her child.

Despite the emotional intimacy with the character’s homesickness, there is also a slightly distanced attitude that Tóibín maintains, and one that contributes to his style. In answering Regan’s question of whether novels can have a moral capacity even if only to make people think again, Tóibín explained that characters sometimes act without thinking and the reader feels that it is not a wise decision, and feels suspension. That discrepancy between the reader and character, Tóibín called the ethical minefield maze. While it seems to go against his earlier statements of entering into the character’s mind through third-person narration, Tóibín’s distinctive blend of empathy and irony must be his writing’s strength. Finally, however, Tóibín remains a deeply personal writer. In reply to the question of whether he writes in English as an Irish writer, he believes that the language you speak is yours, despite the history. It belongs to you – hence Tóibín states he is not an Irish writer but an Enniscorthy one.

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