I recently got myself a library card for the first time in years (the library is now called an ‘ideas store’, which demonstrates how long it’s been since I was last there). What once was a quiet, cool, dusty place of learning is now bright blue, made of glass and full of teenagers flicking through foreign DVDs. (Yes I am aware of how old I sound right about now.) Anyway, the principle is the same. You walk in, you choose a book and they give it to you for free. Genius.
So the first book that caught my eye when I walked in was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I remembered reading one of his previous novels, The Heather Blazing, when I was in my first year at university studying English. I read a lot of books and I forget most of them pretty quickly but The Heather Blazing is one I still remember vividly as being the most haunting portrait of loneliness and imperfect love ever written.
You see, Colm Tóibín is a national treasure kind of author. His prose is so confident and so natural that you know as a reader that he was born to do this. His style is so quiet and unassuming – he doesn’t have to tell you what kind of people his characters are, you find yourself assessing them unbidden. You find you have come to know them from their everyday lives, you can predict them – as though they were friends or family – not just words on a page.
One thing I found interesting about Brooklyn was how much critical acclaim it received despite its relative slowness. The majority of the book consists of Tóibín setting the scene: Eilis, his protagonist, pottering round her hometown of Enniscorthy, Eilis getting used to life in strange, exotic Brooklyn and so on and so forth – indeed, hardly anything dramatic happened until about two thirds of the way through the book. Strangely, that didn’t matter to me nor, seemingly, did it matter to anyone else. Tóibín doesn’t have to shout about Eilis’s mother’s loneliness for the reader to feel it – nor does he have to spell anything else out. His writing is so deeply lovely and his sense of character so precise it is enough that the book is a window into another life, a window into the past.
Brooklyn is a great read, even for people who aren’t big readers. It is charming, understated and memorable all at once. It’s an easy-going, Sunday afternoon type of story with an underlying current of sadness that is typical of Tóibín. He’s never pushy with his words, never overblown with his storylines… that’s why I love him.