The Reluctant Emigrant
Every now and then, with a thrill of connection, you come across a passage in a book that feels as if it had been written with exact foreknowledge of your state of mind: a soothing, specific prescription for unquiet thoughts. During a long-ago solo trip to Rome — a self-assigned distraction after a difficult breakup — I remember opening George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” while sitting at the window of a high room in a cold albergo (once a nuns’ cloister) as strains of conversation floated up from the courtyard. Describing her protagonist’s new start in a new town, Eliot wrote of the relief that “minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love” may feel on finding themselves in a “new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas — where their mother earth shows another lap.” In such a setting, she wrote, “The past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories.”
For Silas Marner, this “exile” was self-sought. But for Eilis Lacey, the biddable daughter at the center of Colm Toibin’s new novel, “Brooklyn,” her leave-taking from Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford, and her resettlement in New York in the fall of 1951 are imposed on her by her energetic, well-meaning older sister, Rose. Young, docile and incurious, unscarred by heartbreak or reversals of fortune, Eilis has no desire or need to quit her widowed mother, her friends, her familiar surroundings. Her “old faith and love” are intact, and she seeks no distance from her memories. But she submits to Rose’s plan for her transplanting, bending to a superior force of will, wishing to do what her mother and sister expect of her, wishing to please. “Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbors, the same routines in the same streets,” Toibin writes. “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”
Confused by her family’s “almost unnaturally happy” mood in the days before her departure, Eilis is relieved to hear her mother, in response to a friend’s casual inquiry, blurt, “Oh, it’ll kill me when she goes.” But go she must, Eilis assumes, even though she “would have given anything to be able to say plainly that she did not want to go, that Rose could go instead.” But the Lacey women cannot speak plainly to one another. “They could do everything,” Toibin writes, “except say out loud what it was they were thinking.” And so, too young to understand the consequences of her reticence, too obedient to bolt at the dock, too humble to imagine that her own life is her own business, Eilis boards the liner for America, an irrevocable step that her mother, her sister and Eilis herself might never have wished her to make had they thought it through. America is peopled, for the most part, by the descendants of immigrants who had the resolve, the daring and the detachment to leave behind the places and people they had formerly known. But Eilis isn’t such a person; detachment isn’t part of her makeup. It has been thrust on her by women who are as attached to home and family as she is. What were they thinking? They wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say.
Colm Toibin, born, like Eilis, in Enniscorthy, is an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions. His characters and plots vary widely. In his beautiful, painful novel “The Blackwater Lightship,” he coaxed a touchy, lone-wolf woman to stiffly re-embrace her mother, their reconciliation precipitated by her brother’s battle with AIDS. In his best-known novel, “The Master,” he animated the inner world of Henry James. And in his story collection, “Mothers and Sons,” he tapped the hidden bonds and vexed motivations of diffident men and women — from thieves, shop owners and farmers to a grandmother who plays favorites and gay men who rally to the side of a friend whose mother has died. In one of these stories, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a woman listens to a song, recorded by her long-dead sister, taken from an album her son has found in the garage. The song “gave her a hint, in case she needed one, of her own reduced self, like one of her negatives upstairs, all outline and shadow, and gave her a clear vision of her sister’s face.” She did not want that clarity, Toibin adds. “She hoped she would never have to listen to it again.”
In another story, “A Priest in the Family,” an aged mother accepts the fact that her son, a priest, will go on trial for molesting teenage boys. “When people stopped to talk to her, she was unsure if they knew about her son’s disgrace, or if they too had become so skilled at the plain language of small talk that they could conceal every thought from her, every sign, as she could from them.” Yet when her son urges her to leave town during the trial, to “spare” her, she refuses. “When he lifted his head and took her in with a glance,” she observes, “he had the face of a small boy.” She tells him: “Whatever we can do, we will do, and none of us will be going away. I’ll be here.”
Through all these books and stories, intimations of attachment, abandonment and strong feeling (felt but rarely spoken) fall like a plumb line. Toibin’s new novel stands apart because its protagonist has such an uncritical nature that she doesn’t see she has grounds for complaint, much less possess any impulse to initiate confrontation. But slowly, equably, and without malice, Eilis exacts a bittersweet revenge for the expatriation she never intended — or, rather, one unfolds for her unsought, organically.
In tracking the experience, at the remove of half a century, of a girl as unsophisticated and simple as Eilis — a girl who permits herself no extremes of temperament, who accords herself no right to self-assertion — Toibin exercises sustained subtlety and touching respect. He shows no condescension for Eilis’s passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in her journal. Accompanying her on the ghastly voyage from Ireland to America, where the sea swell has all the passengers green and reeling, he soon brings her to a Brooklyn boarding house run by a respectable Irishwoman. Eilis numbs herself against nostalgia until letters from home awaken her homesickness. Then she grieves. “She was nobody here,” she thinks. “It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty.”
Unlike Silas Marner, unlike intentional voyagers everywhere, Eilis hasn’t sought the consolations of anonymity. And so, when she meets a man, an Italian-American named Tony, she does what her instinct dictates: puts down roots. When her family calls her back to Enniscorthy, Tony seems to her like “part of a dream from which she had woken.” And yet, back in Ireland, Eilis knows that if she were in New York it would be Enniscorthy that seemed like a “strange, hazy dream.” Is it surprising if a seed grows where it lands, once it’s been scattered? Can it be helped? In “Brooklyn,” Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim.