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Brooklyn, By Colm Tóibín

This novel of mid-century Irish-American life is defiantly low-key – but all the more subversive for it

Given that Colm Tóibín's last novel, the Booker-shortlisted The Master, was about Henry James, it's tempting to try to detect some Jamesian influences at work in Brooklyn – especially as the main character is a young woman travelling between Europe and America. In fact, what proves far more influential is the previous fiction of Colm Tóibín. His prose, always determinedly unshowy, is here distilled into its purest form yet, and so is his long-running theme of people's inability to make sense of their lives. And, like several Tóibí*protagonists before her, Eilis Lacey comes from his own home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford.

When Brooklyn begins, in the early 1950s, Eilis is living with her more glamorous sister Rose and their widowed mother. The Lacey sons have all gone to England for work, leaving Eilis with the sort of small-town Irish life familiar from many other novels – including Tóibín's. Not only does everybody know everybody else, they're also aware of everybody's place in the town's intricate social hierarchy. Eilis shows no signs of resenting these restrictions. She does, however, need work herself – which is why Rose puts in a word with Father Flood, who's back visiting Ireland and who soon sorts out a job and a place to live for Eilis in his Brooklyn parish. She has no great enthusiasm for the idea but, with what turns out to be characteristic passivity, she goes along with it anyway.

Newcomers to Tóibí*might expect Eilis's arrival in New York to signal a major change of pace and tone. Instead, even by his standards, what follows is almost defiantly low-key – and entirely believable. Of course, it's not unknown for main characters in novels to be caught up in the great swirls of history. What makes Eilis different from most of the others is that, more realistically perhaps, she doesn't notice. The fact that large-scale Irish emigration continued so long after independence is generally considered to have been a cause of national trauma. Eilis, though, just gets on with it, giving less of her attention to world-historical events than to say, how comfortable her shoes are. ("What she loved most about America," we're later told, "is how the heating was kept on all night.")

In any case, there isn't much in Brooklyn to turn her head. Her work in a department store is pretty dull. Her boarding house is run by a woman from Wexford, and full of other Irish girls. The highlight of the social week is the parish dance where, as in Enniscorthy, lemonade is the raciest drink on offer. In time, she does fall genuinely in love with Tony, an Italian plumber, but only in more or less the same way that she's always accepted other people's plans for her.

At times, Tóibí*seems to be teasing us with the promise of more traditionally dramatic incident. Eilis's boss makes a sudden lesbian advance, which is neither developed nor mentioned again. Meanwhile, any readers of Irish fiction who might reasonably assume Father Flood's motives must have their sinister side are in for a shock. In a particularly daring departure, he remains a completely decent and kind man. Tóibín's cunning use of our expectations continues when Eilis gets bad news from home, and returns to Enniscorthy for a few weeks. Equipped with the information given on the dust-jacket, that the novel is "a tender story... of the terrible choice between personal freedom and duty", you might suppose that she'll now be torn between the chance to blossom in America and the guilty tug of her family. Yet for Tóibín, such neat distinctions are impossible. Before long, it could even be that Tony is the guilty tug, and that Eilis would quite like to live among the people she's always known and who've always known her. Typically, the decision, when it comes, is not really made by her – and she doesn't really mind that it isn't. Like Tóibín, she understands that either choice would contain roughly the same proportions of satisfaction and regret.

Brooklyn goes about its business with such quiet readability that it takes a while to realise how powerfully subversive all of this is. The current preferred myth is that we are, or at least should be, or should want to be, in control of our own lives. By capturing the unspectacular arbitrariness of Eilis's experiences so convincingly, Tóibí*subjects this myth to a thorough and calmly intelligent kicking.

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