Back in Ireland so soon, and the month hardly gone? (See The Forgotten Waltz, WW Nov. 6, ’11) Seems so. Colm Toibin’s title for his novel about an Irish emigrant lass, post WWII seemed a strange choice at first. The narrative is so firmly based in Eilise’s Irish village, and “America” seems a generic place to her family and friends. Who dreams of building a new life across the seas in Brooklyn? Furthermore, the book is of a kind I normally don’t warm to. The prose is declarative, even monotonous. The events pedestrian. Eilise, with whom we spend the entire novel, is a character without deep passions, or at least she’s not in touch with them or is afraid of them. As she is of most people and things. Not much of a foundation for a book, I thought at first.
\But I began to change my mind, began to understand Brooklyn as the story of an avoider, one who prefers to let decisions make themselves rather than intervene strongly in her own affairs. And from that perspective, the book became much more interesting.
She’s the doormouse in her Irish household. Her mother and stronger sister, Rose, steer the course of the family ship. Thus, the idea of her going to America is really theirs. Once there, she lives in a boarding house and works at a job arranged for by a priest with connections on both sides of the Atlantic. The most dramatic events to this point are her seasickness and her homesickness. Good with figures and on her way to becoming a professional bookkeeper in Ireland, she accepts Father Flood’s arrangements for her to enroll in a college night course as a cure for her depression. It works, more or less.
She puts in her hours on the floor of a large department store, studies, looks forward to assuming an accounting position in the same store once she’s completed her studies. People are kind to her, though not overly solicitous. No one tries to exploit or rape or rob her. Hum drum. And though much of what she does and feels is consonant with her inclinations, nothing moves her much. Her memories of home, eventually fade. Letters back and forth are infrequent and devoid of great emotion. It is clear that the priest and her sister correspond about her, keep guardian angel eyes open for her.
Then there’s the guy, of course. And something momentous does happen. And through it all, Eilese remains true to character. Life and people nudge her this way and that. She moves this way and that in response. Small decisions made in the process of avoiding large decisions and difficulty contacting her true feelings lead her into some regrettable actions. But, true to the character of her life and of the novel, the actions are merely regrettable. Not disastrous. And in the end it’s clear she’ll continue with her rather closed life, keep some inconsequential secrets to herself, and do just fine. All in the manner of the family in which she was raised. A nice book, but give me Anne Enright any time.