Last year, it seemed like everyone was recommending Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (even though it technically came out in 2009). I almost bought it dozens of times but didn’t. The story of Ellis, at least as presented by Amazon and the copy of the back cover, didn’t speak to me.
Last week, I found an orphaned copy of the book in the lobby of my hotel in Vietnam and it felt like fate was bringing us together. I don’t like it here and have been feeling a bit like a displaced person; the character of Ellis seemed to just appear, when I’d been circling around her for such a long time. I’m not prone to superstition, but as I made my way through the book - devoured it - I couldn’t help but feel like I’d passed it up so many times so that I could find it here, in this perfect moment in time, when I needed something to pull me through the grimy congestion of this place.
Brooklyn was a strange book because even though I loved it and found it immensely readable, I am having a lot of trouble understanding why. The story is simple - more of a sigh than a scream - and the protagonist is so passive about her life that at times she is infuriating. There is something of Jane Austen in Toibin’s writing - an easy way of telling a story about something so simple but with a pace that keeps everything moving forward.
I was also really struck by what Toibin left out. Every time Ellis said goodbye to someone, there seemed to be a hole in the text as though it was too personal or painful to examine. Absence was a theme throughout and he handled it with such subtlety that as I moved forward in the story I felt the curious ache that something was missing and it aligned me with Ellis in a way that transcended the pages of the book.
Throughout the novel it is made clear over and over again that life just happens. We don’t control our destiny so much as it breaks upon us, pulls us along as though in an ocean current. Some swim and some drown and their relative success has very little to do with whether they are good or bad. Life is like the tide - uncontrollable, beautiful,delicate, dangerous and fraught with potential.