I think I’ve read too much Edna O’Brien. That’s the only simple explanation I can find for my disappointment with Colm Toibin’s highly-regarded novella Brooklyn which I’ve just read on holiday.

Set in 1950s Ireland and then Brooklyn, NY, the book – which picked up the Costa Award along with bucket loads of ‘best of’ accolades in 2009 – tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a twenty-something Irish woman whose self-sacrificing sister orchestrates Eilis’s move to America where glamour, single men and decent jobs lurk around every corner.

I don’t know where to begin unravelling what doesn’t work here, but let’s start with the heroine: Eilis is simply not credible as a modest young woman from a small Irish town in the ’50s who’s trying to make her way in the world. Her behaviour is perverse, erratic and chillingly dissociated from its effects on the people around her. For instance, her reaction to her saintly sister’s death is bizarrely cold. Why would she pride herself on not showing her distress about this at work? Why would she care so much what her employer thinks? And does anyone actually say things like ‘I can’t believe she’s gone’, while barely losing a moment’s sleep over it?

As I read it, this struck me as the made-up sense of what grief is like from someone who’s never actually experienced it. Later, though, I began to suspect that the trouble wasn’t a failure of the writerly imagination, but rather a writer working backwards from a theme and ramming his characters’ behaviour into it come hell or high water. Indeed, when Eilis lurches from hauling her Brooklyn boyfriend Tony to confession the morning after they have sex to falling into the arms of Jim Farrell within hours of returning to Ireland, she feels less like a character navigating the choppy waters of youthful romance than a narrative tool aimed at setting up a spurious conflict between duty and desire that Toibin had determined as the book’s central question.

Once that suspicion has taken hold, Rose’s death comes to seem like a mechanism to force a decision on Eilis (which may explain why Eilis herself is so unmoved by it). Similarly, the revelation that her landlady Mrs Kehoe happens to have a relative in Eilis’s hometown who ingenuously exposes Eilis’s deceitfulness thereby forcing her hand comes off as yet another ham-fisted contrivance.

Oddly, too, the secretive, misogynistic and claustrophobic Irish Catholic church depicted so vividly by O’Brien in The Country Girls trilogy, and brought to chilling life in recent revelations of a high-level cover-up of paedophilia, is nowhere to be found in Toibin’s tale. Instead, with the enlightened Father Flood assisting Eilis’s career development and an unnamed confessor assuring her that sex before marriage is a-ok, the church is presented as a vaguely paternalistic but ultimately enlightened agent of social change. Again, it’s hard to know whether that’s because Toibin and O’Brien view the church differently, or because these characters’ primary function is to propel Toibin’s plot.

None of this is helped by the number of strings the author leaves dangling. A bizarre scene in which Eilis tries on swimsuits under the salacious gaze of Miss Fortini goes nowhere. Mrs Kehoe’s vaguely sinister remark that Father Flood is ‘nice to who he’s nice to’ amounts to nothing at all. And Eilis’s discovery that her mysterious professor is a Holocaust survivor serves mainly to illustrate Tony’s depth of feeling. Since her curiosity about the academic evaporates as soon as the information has served its dramatic purpose, Eilis’s feelings about this wartime horror are anyone’s guess.

A final thought: while I’m reluctant to trade in gender cliches, it was interesting to read Brooklyn immediately after I finished The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, which I was enthralled by for three days. In Brooklyn, we have a book about a woman written by a man, while Kingsolver is a female author writing about a male protagonist. So does either writer succeed in inhabiting their character’s otherness? I can’t know of course, but I’m curious to discover whether men find The Lacuna‘s Harrison Shepherd as convincing as I did. And I will confess to a thought that nagged me throughout most of Brooklyn: ‘women just don’t think that way’.

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