Colm Toibin – Brooklyn (2009)

Setting: Early 20th century New York City and Ireland

What it’s about: A young Irish woman, Eilis, builds a new life abroad, but the bonds of home are hard to unwind from. In many ways this feels like a sequel to one of the great Brian Friel plays about Irish immigration, Philadelphia, Here I Come, where a young man remembers all the events that led to him leaving home on his last day in the country.

Toibin has an exceptional gift for bringing characters to life through the small hardships they learn to overcome. Eilis struggles to master the boat journey, until a more travelled woman teaches her the ropes. By the end it is Eilis mentoring another young girl.

Why you should read it: For the experience of the immigrant, defined as much by the land they leave behind as the one they arrive in.

The defining moment of the book is when Eilis is tempted to stay in Ireland, and not to continue her new life in America. Returning to Ireland and treated with more respect, the staid community seems more open until she is reminded of the reality — the small-mindedness and cruelty, at which point she immediately decides to return, though the price is a heartbroken mother:

“I’ll go down and get Joe Dempsey to collect you in the morning. I’ll ask hi to come at eight so you’ll be in plenty of time for the train.” Eilis noticed a look of great weariness come over her. “And then I’m going to bed because I’m tired and so I won’t see you in the morning. So I’ll say goodbye now.”

This review in the LRB sums up Toibin’s writing style by calling it “the grandeur of the commonplace”.

The best book from Ireland? It is very challenging to pick one writer, let alone one book, from my home country. Obviously Ulysses is one of the most important books of the 20th Century, but while it is steeped in Dublin it is also a book about everyman. I am choosing Colm Toibin instead because I am constantly surprised by how people have not heard of him — one of the finest, most sensitive and powerful writers alive today. His body of work is broad and wide-ranging, so I recommend starting with probably his most well-known work, Brooklyn, since it highlights his ability to create a bond between reader and character.

But Colm Toibin is not only Ireland’s finest living writer, the number of simple, everyman characters that he has breathed life into makes him the best Irish writer ever. Toibin plants his characters in your mind like seeds, and under his pen they bloom, watered carefully with the minutae of everyday life.

With subtle acts of everyday life, Toibin constructs compelling, unbreakable and enthralling characters. In his short story collection, Mothers and Sons, for example, Nancy, a widow who has been a housewife most of her life, discovers independence by turning a failing supermarket into a thriving fish and chip shop on the main street of her small time. Toibin does not tell you that the Nancy is becoming independent, but we see her evolve through small acts of control as she begins to rise to the challenges she faces and move towards her dreams of leaving the small town. But even as she takes control of the financial problems left behind by her husband and builds a successful business, she faces new challenges in her relationship with her son.

Rating: *** — I wanted to highlight Colm Toibin over writers like John McGahern and Flann O’Brien because I am constantly shocked to meet people, even from his county of Wexford, who have not heard of him, even though he is one of the most beautiful, emotive living writers today.


Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman is the funniest novel I have ever read. It is a mind-bending fantasy set in the west of Ireland that manages to mock everything else in Irish literature.

O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is Irish humour at its finest: sardonic, ironic and sometimes so mysterious that to some it could have been told in a foreign language. It is also as fantastical as any magical realism of Borges or Umberto Eco, with the protagonist passing between different purgatory-like realms after committing an act of premeditated murder, although said realms resemble the west of Ireland, and are full of the stereotypical Irish characters that filled O’Brien’s columns for the Irish Times. But the funniest passages  take a dig at the cult around James Joyce formed by literary critics, through a separate story told throughout the book in footnotes about a mysterious genius De Selby.

The best on of these recounts De Selby being taken to court for a bizarre experiment:

Briefly [De Selby] indicates that the happy state is ‘not unassociated with water’ and that ‘water is rarely absent from any wholly satisfactory situation’. He does not give any closer definition of this hydraulic elysium but mentions that he has written more fully on the subject elsewhere.

For the rest, little remains save the record of his obscure and unwitnessed experiments.

The story is one of a long succession of prosecutions for water wastage at the suit of the local authority. At one hearing it was shown that he had used 9,000 gallons in one day and on another occasion almost 80,000 gallons in the course of a week. The word ‘ used ‘ in this context is the important one. The local officials, having checked the volume of water entering the house daily from the street connection, had sufficient curiosity to watch the outlet sewer and made the astonishing discovery that none of the vast quantity of water dravm in ever left the house.

Almost all of the numerous petty litigations in which de Selby was involved afford a salutary example of the humiliations which great minds may suffer when forced to have contact with the pedestrian intellects of the unperceiving laity. On one of the water-wastage hearings the Bench permitted itself a fatuous inquiry as to why the defendant did not avail himself of the metered industrial rate ‘if bathing is to be persisted in so immoderately’.

It was on this occasion that de Selby made the famous retort that ‘one does not readily accept the view that paradise is limited by the capacity of a municipal waterworks or human happiness by water-meters manufactured by unemancipated labour in Holland’.

In another brilliant passage that will be popular with cyclists, the protagonist is warned that too much time on a bicycle will turn you into one:

‘Michael Gilhaney,’ said the Sergeant, ‘ is an example of a man that is nearly ban/axed from the principle of the Atomic Theory. Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle ?’

Michael Gilhaney,’ said the Sergeant, ‘ is nearly sixty years of age by plain computation and if he is itself, he has spent no less than thirty-five years riding his bicycle over the rocky roadsteads and up and down the hills and into the deep ditches when the road goes astray in the strain of the winter. He is always going to a particular destination or other on his bicycle at every hour of the day or coming back from there at every other hour. If it wasn’t that his bicycle was stolen every Monday he would be sure to be more than half-way now.’

‘ Half-way to where?’

‘ Half-way to being a bicycle himself,’ said the Sergeant.

And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost half-man, half-partaking of humanity…

When a man lets things go so far that he is half or more than half a bicycle, you will not see so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

The behaviour of a bicycle that has a high content of

humanity,’ he said, ‘ is very cunning and entirely remark-

able. You never see them moving by themselves but you meet them in the least accountable places unexpectedly. Did you never see a bicycle leaning against the dresser of a warm kitchen when it is pouring outside?’

‘ I did.’

‘ Not very far away from the fire?’

‘ Yes.’
‘Near enough to the family to hear the conversation?’

‘ Yes.’

‘ Not a thousand miles from where they keep the eat- ables?’

‘ I did not notice that. You do not mean to say that these bicycles eat food?’

‘They were never seen doing it, nobody ever caught them with a mouthful of steak. All I know is that the food disappears.’

‘ What!’

‘ It is not the first time I have noticed crumbs at the front wheels of some of these gentlemen.’

‘ How would you know a man has a lot of bicycle in his veins?’

‘ If his number is over fifty you can tell it unmistakable from his walk. He will walk smartly always and never sit down and he will lean against the wall with his elbow out and stay like that all night in his kitchen instead of going to bed. If he walks too slowly or stops in the middle of the road he will fall down in a heap and will have to be lifted and set in motion again by some extraneous party.’

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