The Coldest Place on Earth

Liam McIlvanney

  • Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
    Viking, 252 pp, £17.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 91812 6

Eilis Lacey is a young Enniscorthy woman who has never dreamed of leaving Ireland. Friary Street and Castle Street, the square and the cathedral: the grey co-ordinates of her small County Wexford town will doubtless always be with her. But this is 1950s Ireland, in which there is ‘no work for anyone . . . no matter what their qualifications’. Eilis’s father is dead. Her three older brothers have already left for England. Her sister, the glamorous, golf-playing Rose, holds one of the few good jobs in town, working in the office of a local factory. Eilis must make do with a Sunday job in a grocery, until an Irish-American priest, home on holiday, suggests that she move to his parish in Brooklyn. Father Flood will sponsor her passage and find her a job. If Father Rossiter in Colm Tóibín’s second novel, The Heather Blazing, ‘hated to see people emigrating’, Father Flood is all for it. He wants to see Eilis working in an office, not wasting her youth in a corner shop. A girl like Eilis, he is sure, will get ahead in New York. She will also feel right at home. ‘Parts of Brooklyn,’ says Father Flood, ‘are just like Ireland. They’re full of Irish.’

Being full of Irish, in the middle years of the 20th century, was not a condition exclusive to Brooklyn. In the 1950s, more than 400,000 people left Ireland, most of them for Britain. In his sixth novel, Colm Tóibín tackles one of his country’s defining narratives (and one whose contemporary resonance may soon be sharpened by the current economic crisis): the long and difficult story of Irish emigration. For much of the history of the Irish state, emigration was a national embarrassment, something it was difficult to talk about. This was equally true, Tóibín’s novel suggests, at the level of the family. Eilis Lacey is leaving, perhaps for good, but her mother and sister can’t talk to her about it. That Eilis will move to Brooklyn is something that’s simply understood, that doesn’t need discussing; partly, we assume, because a priest has suggested it, and partly because to talk about it would reopen the pain of past departures. Instead of brooding on Eilis’s move, her mother and sister busy themselves in making arrangements. A passion for organisation helps keep the rawer passions in check. The same might be said of Tóibín’s prose:

Rose was 30 now, and since it was obvious that their mother could never be left to live alone, not merely because her pension was small but because she would be too lonely without any of them, Eilis’s going, which Rose had organised so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry.

The disciplined clauses of this sentence, ‘organised so precisely’, marshalled with conscientious commas, embody the tact and restraint that Rose has shown in sacrificing her future to that of her sister.

When Eilis reaches Brooklyn she lodges in the house of a Wexford woman, Mrs Kehoe, among a clutch of Irish and Irish-American tenants. It’s hard to escape the reminders of home. There are parish dances with a céilí band (‘Pat Sullivan’s Harp and Shamrock Orchestra’). There is a Christmas feast for the unemployed labourers – the ‘leftover Irishmen’ – who built the city’s bridges and tunnels. There are nostalgic, kitchen-table colloquies about hurling matches and the shops of Wexford town. Even the food at Mrs Kehoe’s is, as one lodger complains, ‘too Irish’. In his portrayal of an ethnic enclave, a hyphenated America, Tóibín is broaching one of the big perennial subjects of American fiction. Mostly, the immigrant story has been told from the perspective of the sons and daughters, rather than that of the migrants themselves. From Henry Roth to Philip Roth, it’s the second or third generation whose experience shapes the fiction of immigration. Brooklyn is unusual in telling the story from the immigrant’s perspective, the more so since Tóibín’s protagonist is female, young, unattached and Irish.

She is also supremely observant. Much of the pleasure of Brooklyn comes from the freshness and penetration of Eilis Lacey’s vision. At times, however, Tóibín’s punctilious charting of his heroine’s impressions can cumber his style with false starts and superfluous clauses. It’s as if his sentences have to clear a couple of hurdles before hitting their stride: ‘And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance.’ It’s hard not to feel that this sentence could happily shed its first dozen words. This feeling recurs whenever a redundant parenthesis – ‘She felt sad, she thought, and maybe that was enough’ – obstructs Tóibín’s narration.

How much simpler and cleaner it would be if Tóibín had pulled up these little narrative flags (‘she thought’, ‘she saw’, ‘she felt’) and permitted us untrammelled access to Eilis’s thoughts. The great virtue of free indirect style is immediacy; it dips us straight into a character’s mind, making their experience more vital and direct. But this is why Tóibín prefers to avoid it. What the sometimes fastidious syntax tells us is that his focus is not on the incidents themselves but on Eilis’s response. ‘It struck her’, ‘It occurred to her’, ‘She wondered’, ‘She thought’: Tóibín wants us to notice Eilis noticing. This is a character who doesn’t yet know what she feels about the world she encounters, and so must go over everything again in her mind: ‘For each day, she thought, she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened.’ The novel is, to a large extent, the story of Eilis’s impressions, her reflections, her winning through to a mature self-consciousness. Tóibín’s aim is not to document 1950s Irish-American Brooklyn through Eilis’s eyes – though coincidentally he does do this. Rather, and far more interestingly, his aim is to render the inner world of Eilis Lacey.

The inner world of Eilis Lacey is a little like the inner world of Tóibín’s previous hero – the Henry James of The Master (2004). Like James, Eilis Lacey has a novelist’s eye for detail. Here is how she responds to her first glimpse of Mrs Kehoe’s sitting-room:

She saw an old gramophone and a wireless in another corner and noticed that the tassels on the tablecloth and the curtains seemed to match. She began to take note of all the details, thinking, for the first time in days, how she could include an account of them in a letter to her mother and Rose.

Eilis is forever scanning her world for its vital signs and working these up into stories. She saves things up to recount to her mother, or just to savour in the dark of her room. She loves to describe, to reflect, to narrate. ‘Eilis noted in a letter home’, ‘In another letter home Eilis described’, ‘Eilis wrote in a letter home’: everything she sees is potential material. These letters home are like an epistolary novel, published in instalments to a readership of two.

But there is good reason why Brooklyn itself is not an epistolary novel. There are things Eilis can write home about and things she cannot. There are things that belong in the ‘story’ of her emigration and things that have no place there. She can write home about passing her bookkeeping exams, but not about her Italian boyfriend, Tony, or about the furtively erotic episode with her immediate boss, Miss Fortini. Even the atrocious Brooklyn weather, those punishing January mornings of brutal wind and frost, must be kept secret, since ‘no one in Ireland knew that America was the coldest place on earth’ and they ‘would not believe it if she put it in a letter’.

It is what Eilis cannot put in a letter that gives Brooklyn its narrative bite. On the crossing from Liverpool, she spends the first two days filling the cabin, the toilet, even the ship’s corridor with vomit. In a fleeting moment of respite, she realises that ‘she would never be able to tell anyone how sick she felt.’ But Tóibín can tell us, and he does so at often hilarious length. When seasickness gives way to homesickness – when Eilis dreams and then daydreams of Enniscorthy’s streets – the same embargo applies: ‘They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter.’ Brooklyn, we begin to understand, is the story of what Eilis leaves out in her letters home.

Among the elements omitted by Eilis are the drudgery and boredom – the sheer brutal bleakness – of her life in New York. At one point her sister Rose writes from Enniscorthy to point out ‘how lucky Eilis was to be in the bright lights’. Eilis stands on a shop floor from nine to six, six days a week, with night classes on top. You can’t squeeze many bright lights into a 45-minute lunch-break. For Eilis, New York is not a river of novelty but a rictus of habit. We learn the details of her daily routine at Bartocci’s (‘she had to clock in . . . and then go to her locker in the women’s room downstairs and change into the blue uniform’), the ‘system’ for washing clothes at Mrs Kehoe’s, the structure of Eilis’s bookkeeping night classes (‘three-hour sessions with ten-minute breaks’), the weekly rhythm of her meetings with Tony. ‘Brooklyn changes every day’ is Miss Bartocci’s hopeful pronouncement, but mostly, for Eilis, it stays the same. Throughout the first few months of her American adventure, the most stirring event is Bartocci’s famous nylon sale, an annual bonanza of discounted stockings.

Readers of Tóibín are by this time primed to scan his new novels for glimpses of earlier characters. Brooklyn features a vignette of Michael Redmond, the schoolteacher father of Eamon in The Heather Blazing. There is also a reference to Eamon himself: ‘He’s studying, I’d say. That’s what he usually does.’ Later in the novel, we recognise yet another character from The Heather Blazing, when Eilis learns that her Brooklyn landlady, Mrs Kehoe, is a cousin of Miss Kelly, the Enniscorthy grocer. Eilis hadn’t known that Mrs Kehoe’s name was Madge, and her surprise is shared by the reader, who can now identify Eilis’s landlady as the Madge Kehoe who runs the Cush guest-house in The Heather Blazing. We are therefore led to speculate on what happens to Madge once the action of Brooklyn is ended. When and why does Madge Kehoe return home? Has the husband who abandons her in Brooklyn returned to her side in The Heather Blazing? It is not simply that Tóibín puts characters from one novel into another; it’s that he shows these characters in a different place or at a different stage of their lives. The characters exist beyond the confines of ‘their’ novel; they can grow and change and surprise us, as they presumably surprise themselves.

Throughout his fiction, Tóibín has relished those ambiguous moments when the private and the public are hard to tell apart. In The Heather Blazing, party politics is very much a family concern: ‘He’s a real Redmond, this fellow,’ a Fianna Fáil activist remarks, as Eamon prepares to take his father’s place in addressing the Market Square rally. Almost all of Tóibín’s novels feature a scene in which politics – in the form of some belief or decision, some action or sentiment – thwarts a moment of intimacy between lovers. In The South, her husband’s decision to prosecute their impoverished Catholic neighbours makes Katherine Proctor spurn him in bed. The young Eamon Redmond, in The Heather Blazing, alienates his girlfriend by prosecuting a murder case in which the accused will hang. In The Story of the Night, Richard Garay has sex with a stranger to the sounds of revving cars from the police station opposite: Garay’s lover explains that the engines are providing power for a torturer’s cattle prods. Not even sex is a purely private transaction in Tóibín’s world.

There, private lives are always in some sense public. The frontless cottage in The Heather Blazing, its façade tumbled into the sea by coastal erosion, is an emblem of this condition. So too is that novel’s opening image of Eamon Redmond, the eminent judge in the empty expanse of the Four Courts: ‘He loved the privacy of it; his solitary presence in the vast public building whose function was over and done with for the day.’

In Brooklyn, however, private life maintains its integrity. Only once does the larger world of politics and violence impinge on Eilis Lacey. Her law lecturer at Brooklyn College is a thrilling, theatrical, joke-telling, foreign-accented European called Mr Rosenblum. When Eilis visits a Manhattan bookstore to buy some of the course textbooks, she learns that Mr Rosenblum’s entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. ‘Can you imagine a country that would do that?’ the furious bookseller asks. ‘It should be wiped off the face of the earth.’ One imagines, at first, that this encounter is ‘significant’, that the Holocaust will shadow Brooklyn the way the Spanish Civil War shadows The South. But there are no further references to the churben, and the incident is significant only in signposting a direction that the novel doesn’t take.

It’s as if Tóibín has decided that the mundane can matter on its own account. Towards the end of the Brooklyn section, there is a scene at Ebbets Field, where Eilis attends a Dodgers game with Tony and his three brothers. In case we miss the echo of the baseball scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Tony talks about the Dodgers gaining revenge for Bobby Thomson’s heartbreaking homer at the end of the previous season. Tóibín’s novel takes its own gentle revenge on DeLillo’s triumphant home run of a novel. It does so by presenting, with quiet accomplishment, an interested immigrant’s view of a sporting contest in which ‘luck and success were once more, for one reason or another, slowly evading the Brooklyn Dodgers’. That ‘evading’ is slyly comic, as if the Dodgers themselves are so flat-footed that victory easily dodges them. In place of DeLillo’s opera of the Polo Grounds, Tóibín gives us a four-page ballad of Ebbets Field. There is no need, he suggests, for a ball game to signify everything. His game of baseball is not a Cold War allegory. It doesn’t purport to teach us that ‘everything is connected’. It’s a game of baseball. By not forcing its significance, Tóibín lets that significance emerge.

The novel’s confidence in the grandeur of the commonplace is discernible in that winningly bald and portentous title. Brooklyn: as though the whole roiling borough were about to be charted, and not just the three or four streets and the handful of rooms that matter to Eilis. But this is what Brooklyn amounts to for her, and this is how we tend to experience cities. ‘What is Glasgow to most of us?’ Duncan Thaw asks in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. ‘A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets.’ Brooklyn’s key spaces are Mrs Kehoe’s rooming house, the shop floor at Bartocci’s and the classrooms of Brooklyn College. Though the novel has a transatlantic reach, its canvas – as in Tóibín’s Enniscorthy novels – remains narrow. Tóibín has always been cheerily sure that his tiny corner of Wexford comprehends important places and great events. In this sense, his new novel’s title carries the same air of knowing overstatement as Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Epic’.

It may be that Tóibín’s most significant gift is a very basic and mysterious one: he creates fictional worlds in which readers find it easy to believe. The Spanish mountain village in The South, the Wexford coastal town in The Heather Blazing, the anglophone Buenos Aires in The Story of the Night: these worlds are realised and sustained in the most authoritative fashion. Yes, this is a question of the telling detail, the deft ‘evocation of place’. But it’s also a question of tone, of how Tóibín’s alert, unflustered prose seems all the time equal to its occasions, how he never ‘writes up’ but only writes his scenes, in spare, euphonious sentences whose assurance carries forward to the reader.

This ability to vivify imagined worlds is central to Brooklyn’s success. So long as we remain with Eilis Lacey in New York, her new world – the throbbing shop floor at Bartocci’s, the clammy dances in the parish hall – engrosses and enthrals us. But when she returns to Ireland in the novel’s final section, the world of Enniscorthy and Cush wells up with such pungency and focus that Brooklyn seems suddenly distant and pale. We share Eilis’s sense that New York was all a dream, and Father Flood and Mrs Kehoe and Miss Fortini and Tony himself become – to us as to Eilis Lacey – like characters in a book.

What brings Eilis home – what interrupts her New York adventure – is the sudden death of her sister Rose. Naturally, Eilis misses the funeral, but when her brother writes with news of her mother’s desperate loneliness, she decides to come home for a month. It is when she returns to Ireland that Eilis comes into her own. She finds the town more open and engaging than she remembered, and her own position intriguingly altered. When a short-handed local factory needs someone to organise the payroll, Eilis takes matters in hand. She performs her task with such zest and skill that the boss swiftly offers her the job. She gains proper responsibility, doing the clerical work that eluded her in Brooklyn, where Bartocci’s promise of a clerical position never seemed close to being redeemed.

Enniscorthy also becomes the venue for an unlikely romance. Shortly after her arrival, Eilis takes up once more with her old schoolfriend Nancy Byrne. Nancy is now engaged to a local boy, George Sheridan, and the couple begin asking Eilis along on their outings to the beach, where she makes up a foursome with George’s friend Jim Farrell. We have seen Jim Farrell earlier, bearing a Darcyesque hauteur through a dancehall scene in which his curtness incenses Eilis. This time around, Jim turns out to be gentle, attentive, well-mannered and shy. His former aloofness was really fear: he didn’t know how to talk to girls. Despite her misgivings, Eilis finds herself warming to this vulnerable man, whose accent itself is endearing after her sojourn in New York. Tóibín handles this development with wonderful tact, showing the ruses with which Eilis lulls her conscience, persuading herself that she is not being unfaithful to Tony.

The return to Enniscorthy is a revelation. Eilis is brought up short by the unforeseen wonders of the dull known world. Ireland has become her America. There is a nice complexity to all this. It might seem as though Eilis takes up her old life at the point she left off, and that the seaside romps with Jim Farrell and the job at Davis’s Mills represent the life she would have led if she’d never gone to the States. But this is not quite true. It is precisely Eilis’s newfound ‘American’ glamour and confidence that make the difference for her now. Two years ago, the factory boss who hires her had refused even to see her; now that she knows ‘American bookkeeping’, now that she walks round town with New York shoes on her stockinged legs, she is suddenly employable. Sexually, too, America has transformed her. Jim Farrell is more taken by the sassy, suntanned, ‘American’ Eilis than he ever was by the pallid wallflower of the Enniscorthy dancehalls. ‘Everything about you is different,’ Nancy tells Eilis: ‘You seem more grown up and serious. And in your American clothes you look different. You have an air about you.’

There is, however, another change in Eilis’s status that may account for her air of assurance and poise: she is a married woman. Shortly before she left Brooklyn, she married Tony Fiorello in a civil ceremony. This is the unmentionable secret that colours her return to Enniscorthy. And though she comes to love Jim Farrell, she knows that Jim would never become involved with a married woman, and so she cannot bring herself to tell him the truth. But America is so distant, and by this stage so dreamlike to Eilis, that its claims seem to carry no force. She doesn’t know that the greedy heat of gossip can shrink the Atlantic to a runnel. Madge Kehoe, Eilis’s Brooklyn landlady, has somehow learned of the marriage, and when she telephones her cousin in County Wexford, the show is over. Now it is Enniscorthy that seems dreamy and insubstantial. Eilis is left with no choice. She must give it all up and go back: in place of the lovely adventure of home, the familiar constrictions of Brooklyn.