Lots of books I read and enjoy but rarely think of again; it’s a rare few that take up residence, that I find myself revisiting either in rereading or just thinking about, those books that I urge friends to read, both because I think they will like them and because I want the pleasure of discussion. Some of these I’ve written about here: “Middlemarch,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Golem and the Jinni,” “Mrs. Engels.”
“Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin fits in this group, but I did not, upon finishing, immediately start urging people to read it. I felt its peculiar force very vividly, but it did not occur to me this feeling would scale. It seemed to me then like a book particularly written – not just for me, that would be ridiculous – but for people like me, who grew up in families like mine. (I was wrong; it’s since become a best-seller, a major motion picture and Toibin’s best-known novel.)
I started it around 10 p.m. one weeknight, thinking I would read a chapter or two before bedtime. Instead, I did not stop until I was finished, around 3 a.m., dazed, bleary-eyed, emotionally spent.
Yet I didn’t understand why. “Brooklyn,” not suspenseful, is a deceptively ordinary tale. A girl leaves her little town in Ireland, comes to America, finds work and love. The girl, Eilis, is ordinary too: smart but no genius, ok-looking but not a great beauty, dutiful but no saint. Worse (from a fictional perspective) she does not seem to want anything very strongly. She emigrates at the urging of her sister and the local priest; it would not have occurred to her on her own, even though there’s scant opportunity in her town and all her brothers have gone to England for jobs. She works in a department store and lives in a boarding house that seems like a microcosm of her gossipy Irish town, transplanted to America. She goes to night school and to dances run by the church. She suffers homesickness. She meets a fella. Some of it is quietly funny (especially in the boarding house), but none of it should seem very urgent. Yet somehow it does, and the real mystery for me is why. How does Toibin accomplish this?
I read it again some time later, trying to figure out how the hell he did it. The second time through, I had the same experience of being nearly unable to put it down, of being totally sucked into Eilis’s worldview. This even though I knew what happens; this even though it wasn’t suspenseful on first reading, and certainly not on the second.
I went to the movie with my cousin. I made more people read it so I could talk about it with them, and was struck by the variety of reactions. Everyone was engaged by it, but they noticed different things. Some people disagreed with the choice Eilis makes at the end. Some were dismayed by her passivity; some by the constriction of her world. And it strikes me now that what works so well in “Brooklyn” is how skillfully and how subtly Toibin uses ambiguity. Ambiguity in fiction can be annoying, the crutch of a lazy writer – but not here.
We are given just enough about Eilis and her thoughts and her world to almost figure her out — but not quite. Was she angry somewhere deep inside with her mother and Rose for running her life for her? Did she make the right choice in men? Will she be happy? We never know; there is room for the reader to fill in the blanks, in a story so carefully constructed that this effort feels satisfying rather than mystifying. It’s brilliant.