One upon a time I was in a teenage band. The drummer, not fancying our prospects, got married and moved to his wife’s hometown fourteen miles up the Slaney River. A rather laconic type, when next I met him he growled uncharacteristically, “You think Wexford is bad, it’s got nothin’ on Enniscorthy.”
I wonder if he’s read Colm Toibín’s wonderful novel, Brooklyn. It opened the eyes of this Wexford man – opened the heart too for I’m haunted by its heroine.
This is hardly surprising since Toibín, like Australian Thomas Keneally, is that rarity: a male novelist who brings women to life on the page.
Though I’ve long admired his writing, I picked up Brooklyn because it’s situated in two very disparate areas I’m familiar with – the borough of the title and Colm’s hometown of Enniscorthy. Oddly enough, I have more affinity for the former though I grew up a figurative stone’s throw from the latter whose inhabitants we called “scalders.”
Back then Enniscorthy seemed never less than gloomy and claustrophobic, perhaps because it doesn’t gaze out onto the sea as Wexford does. I suppose I just didn’t understand the place.
I do now. For Toibín casts light into the dark corners of this small Irish town in the 1950’s, allowing us to experience both a womb-like familiarity along with the class-consciousness and innate nosiness that paralyze such places.
Colm’s genius is that he contrasts this brooding parochialism with the turmoil of immigrant Brooklyn where cultures collide indiscriminately and the recently arrived are forced to shed whole layers of identity in order to fit into a complex and self-assured new world.
And then there is Eilis Lacey, the book’s central character. I know her. Well, not specifically but she’s a dead ringer for the older sisters of a number of my childhood friends, though instead of returning from New York City, these ladies took the boat train from Paddington for their fortnight’s holidays home from London.
Nurses or secretaries with money to burn, they were glamorous in their Cricklewood fashions as they shattered hearts in Wexford pubs and hotel dancehalls. But after a couple of Babychams, you could almost touch the longing in them to be what they once were but could never be again.
You’re on Eilis’ side from the first page of Brooklyn and you’re still there at the bittersweet ending. For like the sisters of my friends, she is loyal, lovely and brave, and will ultimately do the right thing, even if it means hurting herself and others.
In some ways, this is a tale of two cities, for Enniscorthy is a metropolis when you’ve never been anywhere else - while in Brooklyn the best of times and the worst are always close to hand.
As you might imagine, there’s a love interest in both locations and they couldn’t be more different. Each is viewed unsparingly through the prism of class-consciousness. One promises a rise in stature, reassuring but ultimately suffocating; while the other is “beneath” Eilis, and yet in such a union she might one day reach beyond herself.
I wonder do we root for her because we feel she could “do better?” Or perhaps the book leads us to question some of the choices we ourselves have made?
In real life Eilis would probably be a grandmother now, either living in one of those McBungalows that bruise the stalwart Wexford countryside, or presiding over a large, fractious Italian-Irish family in Long Island.
During the final pages she must make her choice and your heart is in your mouth for her.
I’ll never look at Enniscorthy in quite the same way again. The town seems brighter to me now, the gloom is gone and with it the claustrophobia; even the Slaney jigs to a different beat as it rushes under the new bridge on its way to Wexford and the sea.
Or have I changed and am seeing the old town through different eyes? Who knows, who cares? Great books do that to you.