Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This is a very simple book, in fact I'm seeking inspiration here as to just what lies beneath the surface. I don't think very much, which surprises me as this Irish author is receiving much press lately, including a recent 4-page writeup in the NYT Magazine (May 3, 2009). This is a story about Eilis (pronounced eye-lish) Lacey, who was forced to leave her (and the author's) home town of Enniscorthy, Ireland, for the New World in 1950 to seek work. She leaves reluctantly, but falls in love with local Italian plumber after not too long in Brooklyn's Cobble Hill. She must return to home for a reason I will resist revealing and then gets caught between two worlds. So much for the plot. While we're at it, the author's name is pronounced CULL-um toe-BEAN.

It is curious that I read this book weeks after reading Delillo's towering masterpiece Underworld and both books take place in Brooklyn, but this one later by one year. Both reference Bobby Thomson's famous home run, Delillo's masterpiece prologue taking place at the Polo Grounds, home to the New York Giants, while Toibin's Eilis is introduced (p. 168) to the national pastime at Ebbet's Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ironically Delillo nominated him in 1990 for the E.M. Forster Prize at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which he won.

Toibin has been short-listed twice for the prestigious Booker Prize, but I'm having trouble seeing it with this short novel. He wrote this novel while teaching at Stanford. Toibin is keenly aware in this novel of an Irish presence in New York that has eroded dramatically over the years. Interestingly, Toibin says that to enhance the relation between author and reader, he resists physically describing his protagonists. By not describing them, you make the reader's perception more intimate. The Times article also quotes "The opposite of being English was being Irish. The Irish tradition came from the lead actors' playing the parts of tramps or powerless people and still holding the stage. There was not the English tradition of doing Hamlet the prince....These actors came from nowhere, ther was no nobility about their characters. The only power they had was over the word."

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