The former journalist in me couldn’t resist a bit of alliteration for this month’s headline- and believe me, I talked myself out of a far worse title (let’s just say a pun was involved).
I think it’s fair to say, though, that Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn will go down as one of the best books the group’s read this year. The Telegraph described it as “quietly magnificent,” which I thought really summed up the way the book works. Toibin’s understated writing gave us big themes, well-rounded believable characters and vivid settings, but with an astonishing economy of prose. The book is deceptively easy to read, yet draws you in and leaves readers deeply affected.
Colm Toibin tells how, as a 12-year-old boy, he overheard a friend of his mother telling an anecdote about her own daughter who went out to Brooklyn. Years later, the author used this very tale to develop into his novel, which explores themes of home and belonging, discrimination and (very convincingly, for those of us brought up as Catholics) the Catholic sense of duty.
Here’s a link to his interview in The Washington Post, which also has a video interview with Toibin:
I was impressed by descriptions of the Lacey women who “could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking,” and the mother’s reaction to Eilis’s big decision at the end and “how much energy she was putting into saying as little as possible of what she felt.”
Maisie e-mailed her comments and said: “Brooklyn is a controlled piece of emotional prose that paints a good picture of the 1950′s. Eilis, the central character, is a sad figure whose life is propelled along a course over which she had no control. She never reaches the heights in her life that she had dreamed of.
Toibin can draw characters with a few masterful strokes. Following the discussion at the table referring to coloured women being allowed into the store, Eilis finds the courage to rebuke Sheila Hefferman. She says: ‘I’ll tell Mr Bartocci that. He’ll be very upset, Sheila. You and your friend here are famous for your style, especially for the ladders in your stockings and the fussy old cardigans you wear.’ (p.117). I found this humorous and immediately had a picture of a pair of disapproving spinsters who tut-tut. This just an example, there are others.”
Ann was impressed too by the way Eilis had to grapple with a decision that would affect her whole life, when she was clearly not ready for it. Also skillful was Toibin’s way of making the reader change their mind along with Eilis as she tried to decide what to do.
This being the notoriously hard-to-please Berwick group, readers found some imperfections. For new member Anne, the novel was a little more of a “slow burner” and she felt that Toibin’s style works better in his short stories; she would have liked more dialogue and more detail in some of the missing big scenes, such as Eilis’s goodbye to Rose or to her brother. For Janet, the novel was slightly disappointing – she expected more from a Costa Novel award winner. Maise added that she was less than happy with the ending, when she lost empathy with Eilis because of her deception, which she felt was not in keeping with her character.
Because the discussion went on longer than usual, we didn’t have our regular chat about what else we’ve been reading – except that Anne has just finished Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts and felt it one of the best books she’s ever read.
A fascinating discussion this time. Will next month’s choice, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, prove just as interesting?
Next meeting: Tuesday 1st June at 6.30pm. Doolally’s in Marygate, Berwick. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.