"Brooklyn," Colm Toibin’s sixth novel which will go on sale May 5, is a spellbinding tale of a shy young Irish woman’s journey into adulthood.
It’s certain to mark Toibin’s transition from a critically admired novelist to an international bestselling author.
Born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955, Toibin, 54, first began his career as a journalist and editor with the Dublin-based Magill magazine back in the early 1980s (he remained the magazine’s editor until 1985).
Toibin’s first novel "The South" was completed in 1986 but not published until 1990, first being turned down by every major publisher he approached. Undeterred, the emerging novelist pursued his craft, and very shortly his novels were winning the critical attention they merited.
His latest effort, “Brooklyn”, underlines why he’s a critic’s favorite, but it also does something new – its skill and accessibility will likely make it a crossover bestseller that will place him among the contenders for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.
Set in Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s, “Brooklyn” introduces us to young Eilis Lacey, who has come of age in the austere post-World War II Ireland where she cannot find a job thanks to the miserable Irish economy. Living with her widowed mother and glamorous older sister Rose in small town Ireland, Eilis’ future looks far from bright if she stays working for the penny-pinching shopkeeper Miss Nelly Kelly.
Toibin is intimately aware of the rhythms and rituals of Irish country life and has terrific fun detailing the lives of the local women. What’s also remarkable, from start to finish, is how convincing his female characters are.
“Someone told me that men think it’s a really quiet book, but no woman does,” Toibin tells IrishCentral. “I was in Wexford, where I’m from, and I suddenly saw the story in my mind, how simple it was. I just thought, 'Oh my God, I have to write this.'
“I thought it was going to be 100 pages, one of those novellas that no one reads. It was based on a story I heard about someone who came back to Enniscorthy from Brooklyn and didn’t tell anyone she was married for a long while.”
Another element that inspired his latest book was all the Atlantic hopping that Toibin, a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine among other publications, has been doing in the last four years.
“I’ve been wandering in and out of America, teaching in California for three months and then in Texas for three months. So there were days when I felt that this place had nothing to do with me. I couldn’t get used to it,” Toibin says.
“What was strangest of all was that as soon as I got home to Ireland the experience of being away seemed to crumble. Even events that had happened just two days before in America suddenly seemed not only very far away but also not entirely real.
“I became very interested in this phenomenon. I thought, 'What a strange idea that is, how travel and distance can wipe so much away. People say after 10 years you’ll forget something – but what about after 6,000 miles?' That was a new idea to me.”
In Eilis, "Brooklyn’s heroine, Tobin has created a character who is very intelligent without having any sense of her own intelligence. Things occur to her but never in an abstract way. She’s constantly learning and responding to what she witnesses, but in a delicate way that can hardly admit its own scope.
“I realized that Eilis’ journey to America, which her family had given no thought to, would be an astonishing experience for her,” says Toibin. “And I used my own experiences of sea sickness, which have been pretty rough, writing about her first voyage.”
The journey Tobin has crafted for his young heroine is by turns hilarious and harrowing, making you feel for her as she sets off into the unknown. But he’s also equally good at conveying the attitudes of the siblings she’s left behind.
The glamorous Rose, now 30, has voluntarily elected to stay at home in Wexford and mind their still sprightly mother, even though she knows that her choice will more or less ensure she remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
In the unforgiving Ireland of the 1950s, Tobin reminds us, to be an unwed woman at 30 meant that you had little to no chance of ever getting hitched.
“One of my mother’s sisters, who Rose is loosely based on, remained unmarried until I was 12. She lived very close to us and she came to the house all the time,” Toibin recalls.
The journey to America and forging a life here is also, for Eilis, a coming into maturity, a journey toward her adult self.
“I’m trying to make her change, but not in any way that she notices. She becomes more confident, she changes the way she holds her shoulders, for example, but it’s slow, gradual, and of course people notice it a lot when she comes home to Ireland,” Toibin said.
“The reader knows more about it than she does. When I wrote that previous novel about the writer Henry James it was so posh, so full of duchesses and so on that I had a real delight in going back to Enniscorthy and Irish people emigrating in the 1950s and just seeing if I could get that.”
"Brooklyn," by Colm Toibin, is published by Scribner.