Reading between the lines
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

When The Master was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004, it was Colm Toibin’s second time to come within touching distance of the award. The Blackwater Lightship made the 1999 shortlist, and Toibin’s latest novel Brooklyn sees him return to his native Wexford for the first time since. Brooklyn’s heroine is Eilis Lacey, who, like so many of her 1950s generation, has to emigrate to find work.  For some, like her brothers, the destination is England, but Eilis has to venture further still. Brooklyn is a seven day boat passage away and as I make this journey with her, I feel Eilis’s shock, confusion and occasional twinges of excitement utterly and completely.

Trapped in a place where there was nothing” Eilis’s homesickness – that must never be shared with those left behind – is devastating at first. But time passes and with days spent working in Bartocci’s department store and nights studying in Brooklyn College, “nothing” gives way to something; a life of sorts. And when this life expands to include romance, tenderness, even love, it is not so easy to leave behind when tragic circumstances call her home.

Told over four parts, Brooklyn is a novel that builds steadily, binding the reader tighter with every sentence. Toibin uses his displaced characters to return to familiar themes of secrecy, silence and the search for identity, exploring the uneasy relationship the emigrant has with their new world and their old one, and whether it’s possible to be fully at home in either.
Eilis’s quiet struggle to define herself pushes her through the pages and deep into the consciousness of the reader. Rarely in control, what shapes her is the decisions of others; characters whose dogged certainty serves as a backdrop to amplify her own doubts. In Ireland and America, two wholly separate versions of her future exist, yet neither seems to fit exactly right.

Toibin’s style, like Eilis herself, is understated, a solid baseline that allows him to turn up the emotional dial with an intensity that is fierce at times. This is particularly evident in the Enniscorthy scenes, where he can trap us with ease in the silence of a childhood bedroom and set us free again in the breaking waves of Curracloe. His pace is perfect, letting us linger just enough to see a shadow of what’s not seen, to catch a whisper of words that are never said.

The unsaid is what sets Eilis apart. Repressing her homesickness means her family “would never know her now” and this emotional distance isolates her in a way that actual miles never could. It sets Toibin’s writing apart too; this unwavering dedication to the space between his words that allows them to expand on the page and in the mind long afterwards. Ultimately, it’s what lies between the lines that makes Brooklyn a novel of such emotional power, and perhaps ten years after The Blackwater Lightship, this time it may be enough to finally lay claim to his prize.