I remember loving Colm Toibin's Brooklyn the first time I read it (in early 2010 I think, when it won the Costa Prize). I also thought last year's film adaption was fantastic. I was sorry then that thirty pages in to my reread I felt underwhelmed. It was the familiarity of the story and the simplicity of style and structure that did it: no beautiful prose, no irony, no oomph. That said I'm happy that I stuck with it as many of the the virtues I enjoyed the first time were still satisfying and I discovered more too.
It's easy to admire Toibyn's precise tightly controlled prose - simple but completely free of cliche. The third-person narrative voice is perhaps somewhat peculiar. It describes everything from the point of Eilis Lacey, a young woman growing up in 1950s Ireland, sent to New York for a new life, but it does so without free indirect speech, instead describing Eilis's observations, actions and ideas with spareness and exactitude. The effect is to convey her seriousness and her methods of thinking. If I didn't fully appreciate this aspect of the text on a first reading it was because I was enjoying the close proximity to Eilis's thoughts and feelings and how it gives us access to her empathy and kindness. I loved the pleasure of witnessing her subtle and understated journey of discovery and Toibyn's astuteness, psychological understanding and wisdom. Seeing Eilis carefully consider her options and become braver was lovely to see.
On second reading I was able to appreciate the quietness and precision of tone more fully and this allowed me to see Eilis's passivity. Eilis's fate is often decided by others and by chance. She has few options but goes about her life with admirable determination and delicacy. Toibin's meticulousness in showing her ways of seeing mean that you trust in her character: in the decisions she makes and her estimations of others. This is crucial to achieving a different kind of complexity in the second half of the novel.
In plotting her return to Ireland, Toibin shows the reader how, habit, environment and circumstance shape Eilis's thoughts and decisions: "It occurred to her, as she walked down the aisle with Jim and her mother and joined the well-wishers outside the church, where the weather had brightened, that she was sure that she did not love Tony now. He seemed part of a dream from which she had woken with considerable force some time before, and in this waking time his presence, once so solid, lacked any substance or form" (245). What I first saw with understanding and admiration - Eilis's openness to experience life on her return to Ireland and her romance with Jim, now touches me with a little pinprick of horror and compelling force. To be so sure that she she does not love Tony after she and the reader are so thoroughly convinced of her happiness fifty pages previously is quite a turnaround. Toibin's method, to draw us so close to Eilis so that we trust her view of the world, and to show her as anything but fickle throughout the rest of the novel, now underscores this difficult truth about the seductive ease of routine and day to day existence. It asks us to sympathise too with Eilis's limited experience of life and with the joy of finding sympathy and love with others.
With all that said, this is hardly a revelatory truth, and nor is there much else in the novel that would make me want to read it again. I prefer a writing style with more energy and a structure that poses more questions. Furthermore there is one aspect that vaguely annoys me. Throughout Toibin asks us to see others through Eilis' eyes AND to trust her judgement. She is constantly imagining what others are thinking and feeling but, unless I am missing the obvious, the text provides no signs that she might be wrong. This is a little bit weird and rather unsatisfactory. Structurally it makes us believe in Eilis's sensitivity and in the story she is constructing about her life but more importantly it reinforces that deeply ideological sentiment that we can understand others so simply and completely. And also, isn't it all a bit too nice and safe? I wanted a bit of peril or irony maybe.
So, definitely glad that I read it again, because it forced me to look more closely, and it's still a novel that I will recommend and think of fondly. It's also good to compare it with the movie. Saoirse Ronan is so compelling and sympathetic that it's hard to see the hard edge of the novel and much easier to see Miss Kelly as the easy villain. The film also gives us a satisfying, romantic ending. I wonder what Toibin makes of it?