Recently stopping by our old house, I ran into our neighbor, Mrs. Berniss, who, with her particular combination of fluster and devout resignation, informed me that her husband—a night-shift cabbie invariably encountered grumbling amiably on his front porch, flat cap on pate and cigarette butt dangling from his gray lip—is in the hospital, dying, as she put it, “of the cancer.” In truth I know little of his life, except that he and his wife have lived all their married years—at least forty of them—in the once-imposing two-family house in which Mrs. Berniss was born; that he has meticulously tended their patch of lawn and its bathtub Madonna, covering her lovingly with a garbage bag each winter and touching up her paint when necessary; that he has embarked nightly in his taxi, off into the silent streets, between eleven and midnight, for decades; and that he has smoked innumerable cigarettes upon that porch, watching the local residents come and go with affectionate contempt. He is not, so far as one could see, a reader, even of the local paper; never, in my time at least, did he accompany his wife to mass. What his yearnings and strivings may have been over these years, I suspect even his wife may not fully know.
In my youth, foolishly, I believed that a life had a trajectory, an arc, and that that arc had significance, that its meaning could be ascertained. I retained this belief for a long time, in spite of all evidence, because literature—like, but in lieu of, religion—allowed me, even encouraged me, to do so. In this sense, I have been like Emma Bovary, struggling fruitlessly to make reality conform to my literary ideals. Still in some corner of myself, I am unwilling to renounce this conviction, because I do not know what to make of a life without purpose, a life that has no arc but merely a continuing, and then, like Mr. Berniss’s, one day an end. I am old enough to realize that such a life—the mild, meandering flat line of a life—being real (as opposed to a literary fiction) should not fill me with despair; but I seem not yet mature enough to accept this.
In this context, Mr. Berniss’s days upon months upon years upon his porch, at home, apparently at peace, with his compromises—a life, in short, without any apparent philosophical neurosis, without the literary bolster of articulated longing—incites my fascination. Raised to insist that the unreflected life was not worth living, and yet aware that the reflection may impede the living, I have long struggled to imagine, even momentarily to inhabit, such a psyche. In our efforts more broadly to grasp life’s diversity, we turn to literature; but literature provides readers largely with characters like ourselves. Emma Bovary, that infamous self- conscious aspirant malcontent, is but one of a multitude; whereas Mr. Berniss is a rare protagonist indeed.
Colm Tóibín, with his new novel Brooklyn, has, in this regard, accomplished something quietly majestic. His calm, lucid, and patient prose—the same prose with which, in his last triumph, The Master, he conjured the ineffable fibrillations and significant inactions of Henry James himself, Anglophone modernism’s arch-observer and perhaps most self-conscious character—has given life, in young Eilis Lacey, to a creation initially too modest even to be Everywoman.
At the book’s outset, Eilis lives at home with her mother and her sister Rose, in postwar Enniscorthy in southwest Ireland (the setting for some of Tóibín’s other fiction, and his hometown: he was born there in 1955, to long-established family on both sides). Her father has died; her three brothers have left to work in Birmingham, England. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but knows that positions in Enniscorthy are hard to come by; and so she takes a job in snooty Nelly Kelly’s grocery shop on Sundays. Her best friend, Nancy Byrne, has a prospective suitor from a prosperous family—“For Nancy, who worked in Buttle’s Barley-Fed Bacon behind the counter, going out with George Sheridan was a dream that she did not wish to wake from”—but Eilis is a wallflower, timid and uncertain. Her sister Rose, thirty years old and single, with a good job at the local mill and a talent for golf, seems to her glamorous and accomplished. For herself, her dreams are small.
In drawing Eilis’s Enniscorthy existence, Tóibín shows an almost reverent patience for the banal detail of her days. In less assured hands, this could be deadly; but the confidence and pleasing balance of Tóibín’s prose assure us of the necessity of these small facts. We take the same satisfaction in Eilis’s life that she does, as when Miss Kelly first takes her through the grocery shop:
Cigarettes, butter, tea, bread, bottles of milk, packets of biscuits, cooked ham and corned beef were by far the most popular items sold on Sundays, she said, and after these came tins of sardines and salmon, tins of mandarin oranges and pears and fruit salad, jars of chicken and ham paste and sandwich spread and salad cream. She showed Eilis a sample of each object before telling her the price. When she thought that Eilis had learned these prices, she went on to other items, such as cartons of fresh cream, bottles of lemonade, tomatoes, heads of lettuce, fresh fruit and blocks of ice cream.
This is a world—like that of Alice Munro’s fiction—that its inhabitants, as much as its creator, know to bedrock, where when Rose brings home a once-local priest who is visiting from America, Mrs. Lacey quizzes him about his relations until she can place him exactly. Eilis’s young life has demanded no reflection, has brooked no uncertainty; not, that is, until Rose summarily arranges with Father Flood for Eilis to depart for a new life in Brooklyn. “Until now,” we learn,
Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children….
And later: “She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes.” And again:
Eilis would have given anything to be able to say plainly that she did not want to go, that Rose could go instead, that she would happily stay here and take care of her mother and they would manage somehow and maybe she would find other work.
The flurry of attention visited upon Eilis before she goes is what “she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding”—the only time in her life in which she might have anticipated a fuss—and hence pleasurable; but she is struck with the realizations that her departure means that Rose will never marry (someone, after all, must stay to take care of mum), and that
what she would need to do in the days before she left and on the morning of her departure was smile, so that they would remember her smiling.
The humility and duty that shape Eilis’s responses—a dance of near-Jamesian complexity, in which each family member sacrifices her wishes to what she imagines the others to want, without ever saying so out loud—may have been as typical of the postwar Irish petite bourgeoisie as it was of their American counterparts; but it is an attitude far from contemporary. Tóibín’s decision to follow a character for whom initiative is all but nonexistent is both fascinating and a little strange. The years in which events unfold are never explicitly given, and we glean the decade only through traces, over time.
It may be that Tóibín leaves this implicit in order to emphasize the universality of Eilis’s immigrant tale; but in truth, her state of mind dates the novel most distinctly: she is of a social background and generation—the latter notably close to that of my neighbor Mr. Berniss—for whom one’s own desires had no priority. Eilis goes to America in order to please Rose, even as Rose and Mrs. Lacey see Eilis’s departure as a gift to Eilis, a loss to themselves.
The second and third sections of the novel are set in Brooklyn, where Eilis finds herself in a boardinghouse run by a fellow Irishwoman, Mrs. Kehoe from Wexford. Father Flood has arranged this situation, as well as her job at a Brooklyn department store, Bartocci’s. The circle of Eilis’s acquaintance is small—the girls on the shop floor, the other women boarding with Mrs. Kehoe—as are her routines. Communications from home bring little comfort: “There was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice.”
Before long, she succumbs to a bout of homesickness bordering on depression:
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.
It becomes difficult to keep up a good front at work, where her first responsibility as a salesgirl is to look happy. Concerned to make her new life a success, Father Flood, a man proud of his ability to make things happen, finds Eilis space in a bookkeeping and accountancy program at Brooklyn College, and hence offers her the prospect of promotion and improvement. Mrs. Kehoe observes, in response to Eilis’s delight at Father Flood, that
He’s nice to those he’s nice to…. But I hate a priest rubbing his hands together and smiling. You see that a lot with the Italian priests and I don’t like it. I wish he was more dignified. That’s all I have to say about him.
As with Enniscorthy, Tóibín builds Eilis’s Brooklyn detail by detail, with calm authority. Small matters loom in the novel with the significance Eilis grants them, so that we learn about the intricacies of financial transactions at the department store (they use pneumatic tubes to send the dockets to the cash office), or the preparations for a Christmas dinner for the “leftover Irishmen” at Father Flood’s church, or Eilis’s experience of serving “colored people” at Bartocci’s for the first time.
We experience canonical American adventures—the beach at Coney Island, a baseball game at Ebbets Field—through Eilis’s alien eyes. When eventually she ventures into Manhattan to a bookstore, we are witness to both her anticipation and her sense of anticlimax. Eilis, in her quiet, largely incurious diligence, is our only guide. The sense of a changing America is thus present in the novel, but at a remove: Eilis lives a sheltered life, one which, for all its apparent mundanity, offers solid satisfactions.
One of these satisfactions is Tony, a young Italian plumber whom she meets at a church dance. The social distinctions—that he is not Irish; that Italians are, to Mrs. Kehoe and her ilk, marginally inferior; that Rose would disapprove of Tony’s work as a tradesman—are delicately conveyed; and Tóibín manages to impart both a distinct sense of Eilis’s considerable affection for her suitor and her awareness that in this regard, at least, she ought perhaps to aim higher. Watching him as he waits for her,
The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him.
Such tender ambivalence about her beloved is not uncommon; but what Eilis cannot anticipate is the extent to which this tie, wholly benevolent but never wholehearted, will determine her fate. After over a year in her adoptive Brooklyn—a time during which the streets and buildings and people have attained for her a quiddity they had signally lacked at first—Eilis receives news of a death in the family, and returns home for a visit. The novel’s final section takes place, once again, in Enniscorthy, where Eilis has come for a couple of weeks. She arrives with the tacit understanding that her Brooklyn life is now her real life, something she has not articulated to herself until she is under her mother’s roof:
She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back. This made her feel strange and guilty….
And yet it will not take long for the tables to turn again. In Enniscorthy, Eilis realizes that with her American veneer, she has become a figure of glamour and elegance: her clothes, her suntan, and her demeanor bespeak someone successful, worldly. Even her bookkeeping skills are sought after. She is romantically desirable, too: a young man named Jim Farrell, a close friend of Nancy Byrne’s fiancé George Sheridan, and someone who had appeared to spurn her before she left for America, sets his cap for her now, to her increasing happiness.
The ironies are rife: for Eilis, the sojourn in America has been transformative, but it is only upon her return that she realizes that she has grown from a timid and retiring girl into an accomplished young woman. In Enniscorthy, her alienation and her value are intertwined. By the same token, in coming to appreciate the worth of what she has—on both sides of the Atlantic—she is forever consigned to a bifurcated life, in which no one place can fully be home. Very briefly near the novel’s close, Eilis glimpses a future she could have in Enniscorthy, in which she could be both professionally and humanly fulfilled; but the very transatlantic Irish network that has supported and enabled all of her movements up to this point proves, in this instance, a fatally constraining web.
Eilis, blind to the consequences of her attachments when she formed them, is ultimately bound by her sense of duty and responsibility. Essentially unreflective, innately without neurosis or yearning, she has drifted out of Ireland, into Brooklyn, into her relationship with Tony, and briefly back to Enniscorthy, unaware that these actions are decisions, on her part, that will shape her life. No Emma Bovary, Eilis—she gratefully takes what is on offer and sets her sights attainably low. Not for her the nagging desire for a significant life story; rather, the wish to have behaved well, to have done right by those who have laid a claim to her. Eilis becomes aware of a different possibility—aware that she could have a life that she actually chose for herself—only when it is already too late. Moreover, the implication lingers that only through her American life has she become a person aware, and capable, of such a possibility. In this sense, the small tragedy of her fate has been preordained from the outset.
So too with Eilis: she cannot muster the bravery for a further radical leap. But of course Eilis’s case is in so many ways different from Isabel’s: she did not leap, in the first instance, but was pushed. In that sense, her store of bravery is so much the smaller as to seem lacking in a tragic dimension. She did as she was told, not as she wished; otherwise, she would never have left Enniscorthy at all.
And yet: she is also a woman without Isabel Archer’s fortune, intellect, connections, possibilities. Eilis is a woman with, in every respect, the prospect of a smaller life, hence a life in which the proportion of her bravery, while not directed toward her personal fulfillment (she is not of a class or a faith or a background to seek that) is nevertheless considerable. She has made her leap into the dark, albeit not on her own account; and the leap may be all the greater when undesired.
Perhaps, too, when Eilis recognizes what might have been, the sacrifices that she could not know until too late that she had made, there is a tragedy in that recognition as great as Isabel Archer’s. Isabel Archer was raised entitled to the reflected life; Eilis Lacey was not. That Colm Tóibín can conjure for us her trajectories both glimpsed and lived, in their satisfactions and their sadness, and can, in the conjuring, grant them their full significance— this is a meaningful accomplishment indeed.