Thursday 20 August 2009

'The world, as the man says, is a very small place'

by Colm Tóibín

After picking up an air of 'disappointing, after The Master' from the few reviews I perused I wasn't going to read this until a bookseller friend handed on a proof. After reading it I wasn't sure whether to bother posting a review as I wasn't sure I had anything new to say about it but I couldn't have a review of Twilight up there for any longer so I thought I should make the effort. Tóibín is an author I hadn't read previously and whose name I had only just mastered the pronunciation of frankly (it's roughly Toe-been if you're wondering) but he's been shortlisted twice for the Booker and may well find himself there a third time on 8th September. I have to say that it took a few attempts to get started, perhaps I was finding it hard to concentrate, but I found the opening pages to be a litany a character names with very little character behind them leading me to flick back a few pages again and again. Once I finally hit my stride however I soon felt myself relaxing into the assured and unshowy storytelling which may well account for Tóibín's popularity.

In south-east Ireland, in the Enniscorthy of the 1950's we meet Eilis Lacey. Living with her mother and sister Rose she leads a drab existence, lacking the beauty and flair of her golf-playing sister. An unrewarding job with an unpopular employer provides at least the prospect of going out to the local dance without having to scrounge off her sister or friends until the intervention of various agents and the guiding figure of Father Flood provide her with a genuine opportunity.

Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. It was Rose's silence that was new to her, wanting her sister to ask a question or make a comment, but Rose appeared to be in a sort of dream. As Eilis watched he, it struck her that she had never seen Rose look so beautiful. 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. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.

The trip across the Atlantic provides the novel with one of its few moments of high energy: a well realised set-piece that manages to incorporate comedy into its stomach-churning description of the journey. The rest of the book contains little of that virtuosity, settling for a more reserved and unobtrusive style, no doubt in part dictated by the character of its heroine. As has been pointed out by other reviewers, and as indicated in the extract above, Eilis is an incredibly passive central character. Her move to Brooklyn, her employment and her lodgings are all organised by Father Flood. Beyond the basics it seems that almost every aspect of her life is dominated or decided by somebody else: her experience on ship, her job and future prospects, even the very room she occupies in the house of Mrs Kehoe. As the plot swings into motion and Eilis finds herself on several occasions with a choice to make, she achieves almost Hamlet-like levels of indecision (but without the complex psychological philosophising).

Now, a passive central character has certain advantages such as allowing the smooth development of plot and, in a story which involves the meeting and juxtaposition of cultures, the wide-eyed openness that helps the reader see the new world through those same eyes. With this level of passivity however there is the frustration of wondering if they will ever actually make a choice, a frustration which never passed for this reader. That is my only major gripe really, apart from the general lack of impact. Tóibín shows great skill by cramming an awful lot into just 250 odd pages without it ever feeling like he's rushing or skipping through things and, despite the low key-style, the dramatic nature of some of the plot cannot help but involve the emotions. Where he really excels is in describing the conflicting emotions of someone away from home, away from what feels safe, nostalgic and yet in Eilis's case beginning to awaken to her own possibilities, to who she could be.

Later, during the week, as she was making her way home from Bartocci's to Brooklyn College, she forgot what she was looking forward to; sometimes she actually believed that she was looking forward to thinking about home, letting images of home roam freely in her mind, before it came to her with a jolt that,no, the feeling she had was only about Friday night and being collected from a house by a man she had met and going to dance with him in the hall, knowing that he would be walking her back to Mrs Kehoe's afterwards. She had been keeping the thought of home out of her mind, letting it come to her only when she wrote or received letters or when she woke from a dream in which her mother or father or Rose or the rooms of the house on Friary Street or the streets of the town had appeared. She thought it was strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think that it must be the prospect of home.


Anonymous,  20 August 2009 at 17:34  

I've been seeing this book all over the place! And since I haven't read him either, I think this will be the place I start.

William Rycroft 21 August 2009 at 19:33  

As it's the only book of his I've read I don't know whether it's a good place to start or not but it seems as good as any! As an American I'm sure there'll be plenty to enjoy about the view of the new world. Thanks for the comment saveophelia, drop by with your thoughts if you read it.

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