Touched by time

Colm Tóibín
Viking, 256pp, £17.99

I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse for a writer to have a style that is immediately identifiable. Colm Tóibín has managed to carve his signature out of modesty. His prose is simple, though not in a pared-down, nearly bleeding kind of way. You rarely feel him striving after particular words. His sentences aren’t especially short, though they tend to run on deliberately, rather than involve themselves in clauses. In his best-known (and perhaps his best) novel, The Master, the subject itself, Henry James, forced him to stretch his legs a little – which may have been part of its virtue; but it still sounded a lot more like Tóibín than James.

What he sacrifices along the way is a certain kind of vividness, and his new novel, Brooklyn, uses that sacrifice to good effect. It’s the story of Eilis Lacey, a girl from Enniscorthy, the same small Irish town where many of Tóibín’s previous novels have been set. Eilis is an able, decent, modest young woman who can’t find the work to do her talents justice and is eventually persuaded by her glamorous elder sister to emigrate to Brooklyn, where a priest with connections to the family has promised to set her up in life. This is the 1950s; she has to take a boat, and doesn’t see much prospect of returning home.

After a difficult passage, the pressure of adjustment keeps Eilis buoyant enough. But then the homesickness sets in:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.

Style is another word for the material out of which a novelist constructs his world. Tóibín’s world is made of something like plywood, a substance both natural, and artificially plain and simple.

Even Eilis’s impressions are rendered in a tone that seems to belong less to her, a respectable Wexford creature from the 1950s, than to something like the pure language of impressions. Nothing is individuated, idiosyncratic, vivid, finely grained. Eilis herself says very little and is portrayed mostly through these impressions. Even Henry James in The Master, who in life was a sociable and witty presence and spent his career capturing the wit and insights of sociable, chatty people, comes across mostly as a silent figure. You get the sense from Tóibín’s protagonists of the kind of painting in which the subjects have no face, and seem unprotected by self-expression.

Eilis eventually makes a kind of life for herself, falling in love, or almost falling in love, and completing a bookkeeping course, and seems to be moving up in the world in the American fashion. Then family tragedy calls her back to Ireland and she has to choose between her two lives.

Tóibín rarely plays a wrong note, though something about the way events and people conspire to present Eilis with the most heart-breaking version of the choice at hand seems a little too neat. And the modesty of his style involves him, as I have said, in other sacrifices. His heroine is beautifully rendered, because we have access to those impressions, but the other characters appear less fully: her boyfriend, her mother, her landlady. They are defined by the small things they say and the small things they do, but because everything they say and do is made up of Tóibín’s prose they seem a little obscured by their own ordinariness.

There is a point to this, of course. People are not very remarkable, and one of the reasons we can’t know them fully is because they aren’t very vivid. This makes for a novel that is sometimes dull and almost always painful. Its theme is really a psychological version of the metaphysical theory that we cannot see into the workings of the world, into its causes and effects. We have only ideas or impressions, and some impressions are brighter than others, because they are nearer. This seems all very harmless on the metaphysical level but appears much more awful when you replace ideas with people and brightness with love.

In spite of its limitations, or rather because of them, Brooklyn is a tremendously moving and powerful work. Tóibín has as profound a sense of the shape and pace of a novel as any living writer I can think of. What he loses in character and vividness he makes up for in realising what Wordsworth called “the unimaginable touch of time”. In some ways, Brooklyn reads like a short story, drawn out, and the effect of drawing it out is to make it much, much sadder.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek