Small towns everywhere can seem like stage sets in the theater of respectability. Sidewalks are washed, the facades are painted, the performers go to church in their Sunday best. But in fiction, such towns fester with whispery gossip, small betrayals, hidden hypocrisies, petty tyrannies, and calculated arrangements of everything from jobs to marriages. The residents could be living in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland.
Enniscorthy is a real town (today’s population: about 3,700), located on the River Slaney, dominated by St. Aidan’s Cathedral. It’s the homeplace of the fine Irish novelist Colm Toíbín and has inspired much of his fiction. But in his last novel, The Master (2004), Toíbín gave us, to high critical applause, a portrait of Henry James and lived imaginatively in London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. In Brooklyn, he returns to Enniscorthy.
Toíbín’s main character is a young woman named Eilis Lacey. She is probably 18, jobless when the story begins, studying accounting, living with her sister Rose, who is 30, and their mother. The mother is never named, appearing in the first and last acts of the story as “her mother.” Eilis’s three brothers have gone to England to work. Her father is dead. Rose is everything that Eilis is not: beautiful, confident, successful by the town’s standards, a fixture at the local golf club on warm summer evenings and weekends. Her job supports Eilis and her mother, as do sporadic remittances from the three brothers.
Early on, Eilis is offered a Sunday job at a food shop run by a Miss Kelly. She accepts the offer, but her mother is not pleased. “That Miss Kelly,” her mother said, “is as bad as her mother, and I heard from someone who worked there that that woman is evil incarnate.”
In small towns, someone is always hearing from someone, particularly if the news is nasty. As long ago as 1918, an Irish writer named Brinsley MacNamara published a portrait of small-town vindictiveness called The Valley of the Squinting Windows and established a genre. In Toíbín’s Enniscorthy, the windows still squint. Sexuality is rigidly policed. Even at a weekly dance, where young women arrive to be inspected by young men, there’s a sense of a prevailing script. Eilis goes with a girlfriend, Nancy, and they discuss tactics in a diffident way. Nancy is appalled, noting the men on the far side of the room. She says, “They look like they are at a cattle mart.” But George, the young man Nancy desires, finally asks her to dance. Eilis leaves alone.
A few days later Rose announces that a Father Flood, who was originally from Enniscorthy and was on his first trip home since before World War Two, was coming for tea. He had known the father of Eilis and Rose; their mother never heard of him, she says. But he comes for tea anyway. And then suggests that Eilis should try America. He could arrange the papers, a ticket, a job in Brooklyn, even a place to stay. “Parts of Brooklyn,” the priest explains, “are just like Ireland. They’re full of Irish.” Her mother is silent. The usually voluble Rose offers no comment. Eilis understands what is being thought, but not said.
And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.
The prospect fills her with anxiety.
Until now, 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?Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding?
But she goes to America, as if the journey had been decided by others. It has. The trip across in a third-class cabin is vividly described, full of vomiting, bleariness, anxiety. This is not mere seasickness; it’s the emotional and physical equivalent of both childbirth and miscarriage, full of fear of the unknown. The gut-churning experience of immigrant homesickness has seldom been captured with such power. Eilis is helped by a tough, valiant older woman, who cracks open the locked bathroom with a nail file and starts cleaning the mess, all the while aching for a cigarette. She even helps Eilis on the morning of arrival, applying makeup, adjusting her clothes. Father Flood is waiting. Then it’s into Brooklyn.
The scene on the ship is not typical of Toíbín’s writing. He has said in interviews that he’s a believer in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum that “the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” So he writes sparely, demanding careful reading; often the deepest emotions are present in what is not said. This works very well with a passive character like Eilis, who never jumps into conversations, and who is not filled with large romantic longings she hopes will be realized in her Brooklyn exile. In Brooklyn, she has a full-time job. She enrolls at Brooklyn College to finish her accounting studies at night. She has a room in a boardinghouse run by another Irish woman who has no husband on the premises. The other boarders are all young women, most of them Irish too. Eilis accepts the routines of her Brooklyn life and does not protest against the tedium.
She doesn’t seem to see much. I was 16 in that Brooklyn, but I don’t recognize it in this novel. It’s not clear where she lives, but it’s near State Street, within walking distance of the shopping district along Fulton Street, where she works in a clothing store. It’s probably what the real estate people now call Cobble Hill. My aunt Rose lived in Tompkins Place in Cobble Hill and took in male Irish boarders. There were boardinghouses, almost all for men, in other neighborhoods too. And many neighborhoods, including mine (now named the South Slope), resembled urban hamlets. They were still named for parishes (Holy Name, Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, etc.), and some of the people were as trapped in their limited ways as they might have been in Enniscorthy. The young men at least had the Army or Navy to break the patterns, and the G.I. Bill would enable many of them to leave forever. The women didn’t have such options.
But Eilis seems to lack curiosity beyond her own essential places, and that is probably Toíbín’s intention. The crude version: you can take the girl out of Enniscorthy, but you can’t take Enniscorthy out of the girl. Brooklyn in those years was home to almost three million people, bound together by a daily newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle, the subway system, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Brooklyn Democratic machine. The Korean War was raging, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 men in three shifts. You’d know none of this from Eilis. Later in the novel, a young, blond Italian man named Tony does take her to Ebbets Field, and she loves his passion for baseball, our secular religion, but she hasn’t a clue about the game.
She is also generally immune to the beauties of Brooklyn: the slanting Edward Hopper light, the handsome brownstones, the low sky with its spectacular sunsets, the ridge across Prospect Park, the views of the harbor and the Manhattan skyline beyond (in her part of Brooklyn, most men were engaged in the commerce of the harbor, as longshoremen, tugboat captains, truck drivers carting waterborne goods to the markets). She does make it to Coney Island with Tony, and there the stifled erotic begins to stir. But the rest of Brooklyn remains a blank.
Almost certainly this blankness is purposeful, for in his journalism and travel writing Toíbín has a fine sense of place. His blank spaces work here like certain kinds of music. They urge us to fill them in with what we know, or remember. After The Master, which is muscular and full of large, complex feelings, this is chamber music. It is also a love story, told in small incremental moments. In the third act, after the romance with Tony turns more serious, Eilis is called back to Enniscorthy when her sister suddenly dies. She is now bound to Tony, even marries him in a civil ceremony, and promises to return. Then slowly, back in the small town, she is tempted never to return to America. The pull of the familiar, the place with limits and certainties, begins to work it powers on her. A haughty young man from that first dance is attracted to her. She is attracted to him. In the eyes of the Church, after all, a civil ceremony is meaningless.
The novel turns on her decision, made by herself and for herself. Two countries, and two men, and two possible lives. She agonizes, she weeps. But when she decides at last, this reader uttered a melancholy cheer. For Eilis Lacey, and for Colm Toíbín.