Brooklyn, By Colm Tóibín

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The Independent Culture

Enniscorthy in the 1950s. Young Eilis, like many others of her generation for whom opportunities at home are severely limited, makes - or accepts - the difficult decision to migrate to US. After an excruciating journey by sea, she arrives in New York to a life that slightly exceeds her expectations. There is the opportunity to educate herself; there's also romance, in the shape of Italian-American Tony, whose intentions are, after he seduces her, entirely honourable. But just when everything seems to be going right, there's a death in the family, and Eilis' loyalties are tested: the call of blood ties becomes the summons of homeland. Again, she has to travel.

Colm Tóibí*evokes mid-20th-century New York not so much by an accumulation of pictorial detail as in a telling use of dialogue and situation. At times, particularly when Eilis discovers her new city, makes friends and falls in love, we're reminded of a vaguely left-wing novel of the pre-McCarthy years; at others, Brooklyn is more like a sly, mid-Atlantic appropriation of the romantic novels of Kate O'Brian or Maura Laverty - about Irish girls travelling to pre-Civil War Spain in the 1930s, falling in love, and going home heartbroken.

Tóibí*has often spoken of his Irish literary affinities - Beckett, McGahern, Mary Lavin, Brian Moore. Here he's probably closest to Moore's terrain in his explorations of female loneliness and anomie. But Brooklyn is quite unlike pastiche, and its influences lightly carried. Its meticulously crafted prose is slow, leisurely and replete with close attention to physical sensations - seasickness, desire, the pain of virginity's loss. It bears a marked resemblance, in its proliferation of domestic detail and its chronicling of simple jobs and lives, to the mental landscapes of some of the very fine short stories in his last book, Mothers and Sons.

The final section, with its marked shift in register, could be an effective short story in itself. On her return to Ireland, Eilis falls in love again and faces ways of evading and denying a final choice; a sudden twist of plot in a novel that doesn't really depend on plot.

Though narrated in a semi-omniscient third-person, Brooklyn is entirely refracted through Eilis's perspective. To tell a long (perhaps overlong) story through the point-of-view of a very ordinary mind is a tour de force, especially after Tóibín's hauntingly persuasive recreation of Henry James's lyrically unconsummated emotional encounters in The Master.

Eilis' sensibility is at once the novel's fulcrum and its flaw. Her dogged perseverance in her attempt to better herself is accompanied by an introversion reflected in the extreme emotional economy of the prose, which withholds revelation just it exults in the banality of the quotidian and the brutality of flesh.

It is, particularly towards the end, hard to fathom why Eilis, who in America seemed - to use the apt cliché - swept off her feet by Tony responds quite as she does to the adulterous temptation her Irish admirer embodies, or how the possibility of deception and deceit comes so easily to her.

We might wonder whether it's the gritty realities of home ground beneath her feet that makes her obsessed with the present to the extent of negating her recent happiness, or something perverse and complex that we've missed in her seemingly mild character.

Also, there isn't enough psychological contrast between her American sojourn and her return to make her dilemma entirely convincing. But her decision, when she makes it, comes as a welcome surprise; again, a measure of Tóibín's particular skills as a narrator.

Brooklyn is an accomplished and at times enigmatic novel. Unengaged in some sections with its own emotional topography, sensuous or psychologically intriguing in others, it's in all probability a transitional work in its author's varied and fascinated oeuvre, hovering in execution if not length between the techniques of long and short fiction. Whether best read as an oblique study of belonging and its binds, or as a subversive romance, it elicits, in its finest moments, a lingering sense of hope in the possible futures of youthful desire and love in the middle of life's bleakness.

Aamer Hussein's 'Another Gulmohar Tree' is published by Telegram

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