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Travels in America

Books Colm Tóibín's latest novel follows a young woman from rural Ireland to bustling New York City. Ben East talks to the author about leaving home, spending time in America and hating baseball.
Colm Tóibín on planning his latest novel: "I realised that I had to make the reader suffer. I had to be really clever."
Colm Tóibín on planning his latest novel: "I realised that I had to make the reader suffer. I had to be really clever."

Colm Tóibín's latest novel follows a young woman from rural Ireland to bustling New York City. Ben East talks to the author about leaving home, spending time in America and hating baseball. Brooklyn Colm Tóibín Penguin Dh48 "I went home to Wexford, and someone came up to me in the street," recounts the Irish writer Colm Tóibín. "And they grabbed me and said: 'Thank God, Colm. At last we can actually read one of your books." Tóibín roars with laughter. He's joking, sort of: you don't get nominated for the Booker twice - in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship and in 2004 for his fictional retelling of Henry James life, The Master - and win the Costa novel of the year award (earlier this month, for Brooklyn) if you're deliberately obtuse; Tóibín's prose is characterised by how spare it is. But the former was a painful novel about an Irish family tearing itself apart. The latter begins not with James writing The Portrait Of A Lady, but the humiliating failure of one of his plays. Brooklyn is more - dare we say it - enjoyable.

It's also devastatingly simple. An Irish girl, Eilis, who is told to leave behind a banal life in rural Enniscorthy for the roar of 1950s New York City. Slowly but surely, she overcomes extreme homesickness to make her own life in America. She works at a department store, she finds a dashing Italian-American who wishes to marry her. And then a death brings her back to Ireland. Once home, Eilis realises that America has made her fashionable and attractive, and slowly a choice becomes clear: the sexy, modern Brooklyn of the early 1950s, or the old ties of family and expectation in Ireland.

"It's a funny book for me because it has a beginning, a middle and an end," Tóibín notes mischievously. "And my books don't often have that, I don't usually have a plot. But this one did." That's because Brooklyn is a story Tóibín has lived with for years: he can clearly remember, as a 12 year-old, a woman coming to his house and telling his mother the story of a young girl who had left for America. "It was just a few sentences, but it stuck in my mind," he says. Then, in 2000, Tóibín wrote a short story set in Enniscorthy, where he himself is from. He didn't publish it at the time, but it was the starting point for Brooklyn. All of which prompts the question: after five novels, travel books, a play and short stories, how come it's taken him so long?

"Between 2000 and 2005 a number of things happened to me that kind of made it possible to write," he explains. "First of all, I started to go to America myself. In fact I began living in America for half of the year. That sounds wonderful, doesn't it? People would say to me 'God, you're so lucky.' But you wake up in the morning and think 'what the hell am I doing in America? I don't want to be here at all!' So I had these extreme feelings of exile, of home.

"And then, when I was home, this big influx of people wanting to come and live in Ireland became very noticeable. It was a matter of public discussion about the number of outsiders who were working here. I noticed the Poles, and how they would feel about Christmas, how they would act if someone died, this Polish melancholy." So Tóibín had the character from the story he'd heard all those years ago. He also had the emotional feel of the book: the disorientation of displacement. But there was one final trigger. Wexford.

"I'd built a house there by this time, and there was this real feeling in me of not just going home to Ireland as a country, but going right home to where I grew up. I was walking along lanes I would have walked along when, well, I was actually learning how to walk." This idea, of going back to Wexford, was crucial for both Tóibín and the book: Eilis returns and her world is quietly turned upside down again. And Tóibín knows it: he lowers his voice to the whisper of a master storyteller conspiratorially revealing the twist in the tale.

"So I was back there. I could smell the hedges and ditches: to me it's like the most religious smell of all. When you get home, the world you've made for yourself stops being real, I think. It crumbles away. And that does create a sort of darkness, which absolutely fascinates me." And yet this is absolutely not a thinly-veiled autobiography. Tóibín may have used a lot of private experiences - he talks of the appalling homesickness he suffered at boarding school and how he invested Eilis with that same feeling when she struggles to fit in at the boarding house she's forced to call home. Tóibín also suffers from terrible seasickness - and one of the most memorable, excruciating, passages of the book is Eilis' hellish third class transatlantic boat trip. But he's also keen to point out that "all the things I'm not, she is".

"I think I would be pretty assertive in her situation in New York, and she certainly isn't," he reasons. "But perhaps in some ways that's the male experience: a bloke would find a football team, a pub, friends. A bloke wouldn't have the same inwardness that she has. So I had to imagine what it would be like to be a woman in those conditions, at that time. She didn't have those openings in sport, in drinking, in camaraderie. Five or six guys will swagger about the place, being really careful not to describe how they feel, but at the same time making sure they're funny or reminding everyone what a great time they're having. But a young girl like her doesn't make friends very easily. Eilis is also quite serious, which I'm definitely not."

Indeed, our conversation is punctuated by laughter, and Brooklyn is often wryly humorous. There's a blackly comic scene when Eilis' female boss is helping her a little too attentively with a clothing choice, and Tóibín talks with great glee about the passages in the book that playfully poke fun at baseball. "Eilis arrives on the very day of the 'Shot Heard 'Round The World,'" he says of a New York Giants home run which has becomes the most famous moment in baseball history. "I was playing with that term, because I didn't hear it where I came from. It's an American idea that their national game had this global relevance: no one's ever heard of it."

That's not really true, is it? "Well, OK, everyone else thinks it's slow and strange. So I had a few jokes at the expense of baseball - saying it was like rounders but more boring. I have to say the publishers went crazy - telling me I couldn't do that. And I said: 'I've been to the games myself and what can I remember from them? Getting hot dogs with loads of ketchup and mustard!'" Amusingly, Brooklyn has been very well received in America - much more so than Tóibín's other books. He's too bashful to say why, but to me, at least, it's clear. It's not a book which romanticises New York with cliches of skyscrapers: instead, this is a slightly grubby 1950s, full of racism and misogyny. It feels real. Eilis never once stands under the Empire State Building, gazing up in wonder. Nor does she stroll around Central Park as a wide-eyed tourist.

"If I'd had her, just for one moment, standing anywhere near the Statue Of Liberty or something, then the book would have been over," he says. "Finished. If you'd gone to Brooklyn the way she did in the 1950s, she wouldn't have seen the skyscrapers, or had anything to do with the romanticism of the place. She would have got off the boat and been straight into Brooklyn. And anyway, Eilis is not a girl who notices things like that. She notices how floorboards creak."

It's Eilis's groundedness and work ethic, her shyness around men, which imbues Brooklyn with the feel of a great 19th century novel. Of course, Eilis is burdened with the classic 19th-century dilemma when she's forced to return to Ireland: can she break family ties and responsibilities and return to America. Where does she belong? Suddenly, the reader realises the character they've come to love and root for may not have the happy ending she deserves.

Tóibín chuckles again. "I realised that I had to make the reader suffer," he says, almost in a cackle. "I had to be really clever, even to the extent of bringing her back to Ireland at the right time of year. So it's June, and you can get beautiful days then. It's truly not like anywhere else when you have these days of golden sun in Ireland: honestly, people remember them forever. "I wanted to offer Eilis that, and move very, very slowly, describe every tiny detail. I hoped to create this effect where the reader starts forgetting, as much as Eilis does, where she has just come from. It's strange to say this, but I wanted the reader to realise what's happening almost before she does. And you have to slow the book right down to do that: so you see her mother ironing her clothes, you find out exactly where she went, the tiny specifics of the dance they go to."

The 54-year-old Tóibín' loves talking about the process of storytelling as much as he does his own books, deriding most modern novelists and their stylish sentences as akin to "preening around a dressing room naked". He teaches creative writing at Princeton every March, something he enjoys immensely though he likens it to acting. And he can't help point out - with some amusement in his voice - that the novels of recent times that have been held up as being the best "New York books" all have a happy connection.

"There's mine, Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin, and a third book, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. And all three of us are Irish. Ha! If Jonathan Lethem, Jonathan Safran Foer or Jonathan Franzen started writing about Dublin I'd go crazy. I'd be putting up the barriers! "Perhaps the Irish experience, of leaving home and so on, offered the world a metaphor for what it might be in terms of a cultural melting pot, in terms of reinventing yourself. Me and Colum read together in Cheltenham and he was very enthused about this idea of being a New Yorker as soon as you arrive in New York. And I was saying 'yes, you can become as lonely as hell there'. More than you can anywhere else, you know?"

Ben East is a freelance writer living in Manchester.

Published: January 14, 2010 04:00 AM

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