Thursday 23 May 2019

Delicate portrait of a soul triumphs in Toibin's tale

Brooklyn and Enniscorthy are the twin backdrops for Colm Toibin's new novel, writes Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly


Colm Toibin

Viking, €13.99

Colm Toibin's new novel has been a while in coming. Apart from a widely-acclaimed short story collection, his most recent offering, The Master was published in 2004. His territory in Brooklyn is not new: Enniscorthy in the Fifties. But it is also set in Brooklyn, New York, during the same bleak period of post-war austerity. And Toibin's evocation of the two serves to highlight strange similarities of life in the two places. They are the similarities imposed on people by the experiences of low expectations and inherited deprivation, different only in their geographic distance from each other.

Eilis Lacey is the younger of two sisters living at home in Enniscorthy with their widowed mother. Rose has a book-keeping job with a local firm, a job which gives her access to a provincially desirable lifestyle: she even belongs to the local golf club where aspirations for acceptance through association with the young-to-middle-aged married couples of the town blind her to her isolation from finding a mate. Eilis has no such social aspirations: she admires Rose, but her hopes are merely for a job: any job rather than the weekend shelf-stacking grudgingly offered to her by a local shopkeeper.

Home on holiday from Brooklyn, a Father Flood sees her dilemma, and on his return to New York, he writes, offering to be her mentor and sponsor. Eilis sees her new life in Brooklyn as a means of removing the burden of her support from her mother and sister, and her resentment at being packed off with such alacrity never reaches even simmering point: the hard school of poverty represses emotion. This is for the best, whatever her fears. Only later does she realise Rose's unselfishness in allowing her little sister opportunities that she might have seized for herself.

But there is to be no "office" job for Eilis, despite Father Flood's certainties of her "refinement" providing one for her. Housed in a boarding house run by a parish connection of the priest's, where the Irish landlady is also proud of her own "refinement," Eilis works in a department store only streets away, monitored and hectored, her world as tiny as it was in Enniscorthy, her prospects as trammelled, her fellow workers and house-mates even more bound by petit-bourgeois bigotry and snobbery than she had seen in Wexford. It is a year before she even visits Manhattan, which she regards as a foreign territory, its sophistication and elegance beyond her grasp.

Toibin sketches the dreariness with an even, surgical precision, his prose unyielding and measured, kept in check almost, it seems, as a mirror for the checked, repressed, fearful emotions he projects on to his central character and the people surrounding her. The longings are tentative, dismissed almost before they surface in this world of routine, of unquestioning acceptance of small authority, of pathetic gratitude for even a day-trip to the crowded beach at Coney Island. For Eilis, the uneventful happenings of her days pass in a half-lived dream, their reality touching her only as fuel for her letters home, the excitement of conversations about a new fashion accessory juggled and polished into pages that try defiantly to paint glamour.

Even her sexual awakening is hopeless, another tick on the list of inevitable steps: a "nice boy" must, of his essence, be desirable. Sexual fulfilment isn't even dimly envisaged: there is no expectation of anything other than niceness. Compatibility is a shared future for which incompatibility in bed is a small price to pay. But even the niceness is alien, as Eilis discovers when tragedy calls her back to Ireland, and colour enters her life as familiarity unfreezes the determined carapace she has built round herself. This is to be no flowering salvation, however. Realisation that life can be actively joyful, however narrow its confines, has no place where expectation is almost an immorality to be scolded out of one's heart.

Toibin paints the two worlds quite wonderfully beneath the overall precision of his portrait of a soul deadened by duty. The unexpected lies in his presentation, very much against genre, of small-town Ireland before even the optimism of the Lemass Era had entered the picture. There is an affection here, the mean-minded of Enniscorthy somehow less venomous in their judgements than their Brooklyn counterparts, summer evenings at the strand at Cush a drift of glowing sand against the blisteringly fierce blasts of windblown heat and heaving bodies at Coney Island.

The book is determinedly tragic in its culmination: Toibin celebrates the familiar with delicacy, almost as though feeling duty-bound, and distances himself with a sociologist's objectivity from the impersonality of even a small cell of New York life. But geography and circumstance are irrelevant where mundane hopelessness is destined to triumph: Brooklyn is about the dissection of a soul, and in the soul, Toibin seems to have decided, the central cell will always carry its own destruction.

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