Monday, May 3, 2010

Of Barbecues and Book Clubs: Bloggers' May 2010 Review - Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I am running late in posting this review which should have gone live about a day ago - so let me start by apologising to my fellow book club bloggers* (especially sorry Lily!)who've been checking in on Sunday May 2nd. My excuses might sound trite but they are merely that we have thirteen members of hubby's family visiting from Holland for the week as he reaches a significant birthday which we will celebrate on Thursday with a party in a local establishment of repute. There may even be a post about it if we come through it with our dignity intact!

I am enjoying being on holidays from work for the next week, and hosting our guests with all the hospitality we can muster. They are staying in a nearby town in holiday bungalows. We had a great barbecue yesterday with hubby cooking for 22 people and us all ducking and diving between the thundershowers. After the family arrived we had lunch on the patio where I had a chance to showcase my domestic goddess skills. We had freshly baked buttered scones with strawberry jam and whipped cream, which went down a treat, hot apple tart and cream, and a variety of fairy cakes, from coconut to hundreds and thousands on icing to cherry buns. Today when they called in we had simpler fare - plain madeira and cherry madeira cakes with lashings of tea (which the Dutch drink black) and real coffee (as opposed to instant). I hope I can sustain the variety for the week, in between baking the birthday cake and deciding on a decorative theme.

But I digress. First and foremost this post is supposed to be about Brooklyn - a wonderfully evocative yet bleak book that I read some months ago. I'd read the reviews back when the book came out and they were mixed - I remembered reading that it went down a treat in Ireland and America but it failed to make much impact in the UK. I think this is because the theme of emigration has a particularly Irish emotional resonance, and I think that this nuance is absent in the UK, where migration tended tobe either outward to the colonies, and inward migration was inherently self-serving. This is best portrayed with the West Indian immigrants of the Windrush who were brought in to serve the Empire in its dying days. I think Andrea Levy wrote brilliantly about that era in Small Island, and Colm Tóibín writes equally evocatively about the same era but in the Irish-American context.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, who somewhat reluctantly emigrates from Wexford for Brooklyn in the 1960s, leaving her older sister Rose and mother behind. She comes across as extremely passive and lets things happen to her, imposed by those stronger than herself, or so it seems on first glance. Her position as a shop assistant, and her boarding with the ghastly Mrs. Kehoe is secured through contact with a local priest home on holidays from New York, who promises to take care of Eilis. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable when I read that, as from today's perspective the prospect of being beholden or under a compliment to the priest could have undertones of the abuse of power. Thankfully my fears were unfounded but the relationship with the priest seemed almost unreal and you wondered why he would go to such ends to take care of her. Perhaps it's the times we are in that we can't attribute a good deed to a member of the clergy without suspecting an ulterior motive. Maybe he was just a decent man.

Eilis's departure from home was sad and the sea crossing to New York was graphically written and spared nothing for readers of a delicate disposition in its description of its awfulness for steerage class passengers. Rose dies unexpectedly and Eilis returns to Wexford for the funeral. A dilemma develops as her brothers go to England to look for work, and she has fallen in love in New York with Tony from an Italian family with ambitions to develop a building empire - echoes of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott here - does she abandon her widowed mother to return to her Tony - is she really in love or was it an illusion? It's almost because it seems like the right thing to do at the time, to escape from the loneliness she felt so far from home in a society where she wasn't fully accepted by her peers in the boarding house or at work.

She seems to drift through life and comes across as a suppressed woman who daren't let emotions surface or they could become uncontrollable. All the women in the book were strong women who had to be in control and despite Eilis's apparent passivity it was an armour against revealing her true emotions and desires. I thought the book was written with sparse narrative but this fitted the theme of leaving a lot unsaid - as was fitting to the era when everything was concealed and true feelings were subsumed in convention dictated by church and state - two things that in Ireland were interchangeable. This was the era where the State bowed - literally - to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and sought his approval for any and every government proposal that might impact on the privacy of the family home. The doomed Mother and Child Bill of Noel Browne encapsulated that insularity and fear of progress, and seems incredible from today's perspective.

I wrote a review of Brooklyn for Rosita Boland's inaugural Irish Times Book Club, and a snippet of it was in the Saturday Weekend supplement - much to my egotistical delight as it isn't every day I get to see my name in print in such a hallowed place - and this is what I wrote in the online review:

"It’s a great idea to have a bookclub online like this - I am in a bookclub locally which is great - we did Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and loved it unanimously, but as we have a rule not to repeat authors (as it is so tempting to repeat favourites) Brooklyn won’t get read by our club. I just finished our local library copy. I loved the flow of the language, languid and very evocative of what I imagine life in Wexford must have been like in the 50s or 60s (I was a child in the 60s so I can vaguely relate to it) but I haven’t ever been to Brooklyn so can’t relate there.

I felt he drew a vivid picture of the life of the Irish emigrant there and the claustrophobia that prevailed in Eilís’s life at the boarding house and in her job. I don’t know if the character of Eilís was really credible and she irritated me a lot with her passivity. Her relationship with Tony seemed so doomed to failure in the long term - I would love to revisit them a decade or two down the line. Shades of Charming Billy in the beach scenes, a book we read in our book club which seriously divided opinion - does the emigrant fare better in an Irish ghetto or by integrating?

I read all of Tóibín’s books except The Master and loved them; this one was a bit too stereotypical. Glad I’m not the only one here thinking Rose and Miss Fortini might have been closet Lesbians. Won’t say more as there are enough Spoiler Alerts already in the above comments!

I look forward to the book club progression and best of luck with it - thanks Rosita for starting it up."

That's about it - you get opinions from right now and a few months ago, and I think they reflect my feelings about Brooklyn accurately enough. It's a dynamic process, responding to and reviewing a book, as every day can bring a different reaction, depending on the mood and a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. That's why I try to write reviews from the heart in a stream of consciousness fashion instead of systematically, with quotes and the book beside me, and as my kids say, WYSIWYG*- a snapshot of what the book evokes in me at this moment. I hope it encourages you to read Brooklyn, as it is one that stays with you for a long time, and evokes a place I've never been to as clearly in mind pictures as if I had lived there beside Eilis. Surely an accomplishment for any author, particularly one as skillful as Colm Tóibín.

*What You See Is What You Get

PS: Over at Lily's Blog you will see links to all the other members of the Bloggers' Book Club, as she is the moderator - and I hope you will get to read all their reviews too. It's not nice to write into a void - so comments and feedback will be very welcome!

The Photos below the Brooklyn cover are to give a flavour of our Dutch weekend -
  • Me in my Dutch domestic goddess kit
  • Hubby Jan tasteful in the Dutch colours and me - BBQ time
  • Lunch on the patio - with lots of home baking
  • BBQ between the showers


Lily said...

Hi Domestic Goddess, Hope your husband has a very happy significant birthday. I don't know where you got time and energy to write a post with family visiting and all your cooking but fair play to you :) I hope the party goes off great during the week. There's nothing like celebrating good times. Enjoy every minute of it and don't wreck yourself with too much work.

You really got me thinking with your comment

' ... and despite Eilis's apparent passivity it was an armour against revealing her true emotions and desires. I thought the book was written with sparse narrative but this fitted the theme of leaving a lot unsaid - as was fitting to the era when everything was concealed and true feelings were subsumed in convention dictated by church and state - two things that in Ireland were interchangeable.'

I feel that observation is so true. As time moves on, generations including our own children probably won't appreciate how oppressed life in Ireland was back then.

I agree with you that Tóibín evoked the period well but I would far more recommend books like 'Amongt Women' to give a sense of the time, than this book. However having read the different reviews, I am going to read other books by Tóibín to get a better sense of the author.

This was a good choice of book for a book club as there are very diverse opinions

I wrote comments on some reviews yesterday while traveling using my phone so they were much more brief. Needless to say I'm not writing this on a phone!

FoodFunFarmLife said...

Goodness, you've been busy ! I know what it's like to have a house full & non stop catering - but at least here I have help with washing up the dishes etc ;) Have a fun week ... always lovely to be together with good friends/family in a crowd & hope that your husband has a very happy birthday ! P.S. we had visitors from Holland at the farm last week, they came laden with gorgeous Dutch cheese and stroopwaffel - yum !

Cathy said...

I love your review, and am thinking of actually adopting it as my (yet and probably forever unwritten) own review. Suppressed woman - drifting - leaving things unsaid - totally agree with all of that, it's exactly what I felt upon reading the book, life happens to her, and even going back to Brooklyn is imposed in a way, as she once more shirks from choosing. I must say I was biased from the start, as the Blackwater Lightship is one of my favourite books; this one I also liked, including the description of homesickness, which rang very true with this longtime immigrant...

SusanC said...

That was a fantastic review Catherine. So much of what you said I never really thought of - the suppression, the non-display of emotion. I just couldn't seem to warm to Eilis or relate to any of the characters, except for Mrs. Keogh who seemed to have such a strong personality. I haven't ruled Tóibín out though. I intend reading the Blackwater Lightship now.

Made Marian said...

Congrats on getting your review into the Irish Times, that's so cool.

It never occured to me that Rose was a lesbian actually, I thought that maybe Father Flood and her might have had a relationship in their younger days before he joined the priesthood and that she still held a torch for him.....funny how people take different things from the same information.

Irish Mammy said...

Hi Catherine, fair play to you with so many inlaws I only had 4! 2 more in a month staying for a week, I can't go into details as they read my blog ;-)
I loved your line Eilis 'irritated me a lot with her passivity' I agree. It's so interesting to read everyone's comments on the book and see what interpretations they had. I thought that Eilis had already decided to return but didn't tell anyone, whereas Lily thought she wouldn't have bothered only Mrs Kehoe via Miss Kelly called her bluff. Also you are right about perhaps the priest was a good man but in this climate I was thinking had something happened between himself and Rose perhaps before he was ordained. Who knows eh? Good luck with the party x

niamh said...

Busy woman! I read this book with my mum (mini book-club) and we had similar feelings to you. I loved that it's a look at emigration from a female point of view and that nothing really awful (ie melodramaatic)happens in it. But we both felt the characters lack something - though it could be that I was just impatient with how accepting she was of the changes in her life. But parts of it are beautifully written - loved the descriptions of Tony's family and how they interact, and the social scene in Ireland was very realistic. We also wondered about Rose and Ms Fortini esp after the scene where Eilis tries on the new dress. Layers of meaning.

Catherine said...

Thanks for all the comments - I haven't even read all the reviews of the other members or commented on them all - so apologies for that. I will eventually get round to it but it's a mad week as I told you above.
LILY - I responded over on your blog I think, but I agree that our kids' generation and even the younger generation than me - prob. most of the bloggers in the club! - would have difficulty realising how awful it was- McQuaid's control of the government, Noel Browne's humane bill being quashed, the contraceptive train - the Pill as a cycle regulator - the hypocrisy of the Irish solution to Irish problems down the years. No wonder we're in such meltdown as a society now with all the sexual and societal repression (and let's face it most of the church control had an unhealthy focus on matters sexual. Even my beloved late mother - who was not open on such matters - found it reprehensible that the priests kept interfering in marital private lives like asking why women weren't pregnant within a year of marriage, and all the going around beating couples out of ditches with blackthorn sticks! Seems there was one of those in these parts when she was growing up! Can you imagine our kids putting up with that nonsense? Pertinent now that the Pill is 50, there's no turning back the clock now. I do think Tóibín captured that repression brilliantly in the book even if it makes it contrived and stilted - I think that's a deliberate ploy he used.
That's my rant for tonight!
All the best, Catherine.
PS - well done on doing the Limerick Run - my son in UL did the 10k Jacinta O'Brien run (in memory of a deceased PE faculty member) in the college recently, got his picture on the Limerick Post - online edition has him on page 91. (he didn't win or anything, just got in the paper - he's no. 236!)

Catherine said...

LYNDA - I got some stroopwafels too! As we can get great Dutch cheese at our local Lidl it's not such a treat to get it from Holland as it was back in the old days.Ours might be here for a while longer as the old Icelandic volcano is acting up again! I'm enjoying the week, we went on a nice day trip today - a blogpost will follow when I get time!
All the best, and enjoy the rainy season!

Catherine said...

CATHY - hope you do get to post a review sometime - haven't checked in today with you to see if you did. And I loved The Blackwater Lightship too - I read it for our real book club (As distinct from this Virtual one!) and it went down a treat. I loved his other books too - about Wexford and Spain - but didn't read The Master yet. Subject matter didn't appeal - maybe I will one day.
All the best, Catherine.

Catherine said...

SUSAN C - don't rule out Tóibín on this book - as I said above to Lily - I think it was deliberate construct to convey the repression of the era that the writing was so spare. Thanks for your kind comment on my review - I didn't go into detail as a lot of the finer details were blurred but I have an overall image of the book that hasn't faded. I found Eilis cold, and unfeeling, and disconnected from others beyond the point of not caring of their opinion of her - which contrasted with her conventional behaviour in doing what was expected of her. I strongly recommend The Blackwater Lightship.
Good luck - Catherine.

Catherine said...

MARIAN - I think there was a sub-text of inferred gay attraction in different relationships in the book and that's why I thought Rose might have been included - and there was that scene in the shop changing room with the swimsuit. It was tense but he captured it wonderfully I felt.
As for getting the review in the Times, it was just a bit of the full online review that was published, and I got a kick out of my name in print there! Check out the Times bookclub, it's a nice idea and not too difficult to be involved.
All the best, Catherine

Catherine said...

TREASA - I can see you have to be diplomatic if your blog's read by everyone in the extended family. Anyway I am enjoying the week, trying to not get pressured with the party - have to remind myself it's contracted out to the hotel (bar the cake which I want to do!) but as it's the first time I haven't been the host for a party I can't get used to the feeling I should be busy!Interesting point about the possibility the priest loved Rose and did her a favour by taking on Eilis and guarding her in the US. I do agree with Lily that Eilis would've chickened out of returning if she wasn't forced into it by the revelations of Mrs Kelly. Enniscorthy then was a real valley of squinting windows - as was all of Ireland I'd say!
Good luck with your visitors too - had a lot of Swedish friends in Africa and Asia - mostly Lutheran pastors and their families!

Catherine said...

NIAMH - I agree that it's a multi-layered story - and there's a lot left unsaid. That's fitting with the context of time and place. good to have read it with your mother, and that you both felt the same about it - I love Tóibín's books anyway so I was able to handle the shortcomings of this compared to his other books as the characters were well drawn if not entirely likeable! Eilis was just too passive for words. If she was in an abusive relationship it would be understandable that she be so apathetic but in her case she should have been a happy young girl on the cusp of a new life. Agree about the social structure of Ireland being well drawn.
All the best, Catherine.

Irish Mammy said...

Award for you over at mine!