Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín | Guardian book club, week one: restraint

Week one: restraint

"She knew as she sat on the edge of the bed and took her shoes off and then lay with her arms behind her head that she had spent every day putting off all thought of her departure and what she would meet on her arrival." This sentence from Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn is characteristically plain and yet complex. His protagonist, Eilis, has come back from New York to her home in Ireland for what was intended as a brief visit. She is, we might say, prevaricating about her return to Brooklyn, where Tony, whom she has hurriedly married before embarking, awaits her. It is the 1950s, and a woman's choice of a husband is supposed to be irreversible. But now, back in her home town, where no one knows about Tony, gentle, intense Jim Farrell, is courting her. The sentence gives us her insight – she recognises that she has not wanted to think about returning to America – but also her evasiveness. The very details of her physical movements seem to mimic the care with which she concentrates on anything except imagining what might lie before her.

Tóibín's novel is narrated in the third person, but entirely from Eilis's point of view. The author's stylistic restraint is in imitation of his protagonist's self-restraint. Inhabiting Eilis's mind, Tóibín could tell us anything he liked about what she is thinking. What engages him, however, is the wariness that governs her thoughts. When her landlady in Brooklyn offers her the best room in the house, saying she is the only one of her boarders "with any manners", Eilis is anything but pleased. "She believed that Mrs Kehoe was giving her too much without knowing her well enough and just now had also said too much." Going over what one of her fellow boarders has told her about Mrs Kehoe's true motives, she comes to a characteristic decision. "It would be best if she stopped thinking about it altogether."

The narrative is given its voltage by all that Eilis wants not to think about – hence what, on first reading, appears her curious passivity. The imperious Miss Kelly, owner of a grocery shop in town, approaches her with an offer of part-time work, but the offer is more like a command, which Eilis undissentingly obeys. She allows no complaint to enter her thoughts. Later, her long journey to take up a job in a Brooklyn department store is undertaken as if it were inevitable. In a brilliantly managed scene, a visiting American priest, Father Flood, takes tea with Eilis, her mother and her sister, and we see that Eilis's future has been decided. Father Flood pauses from his description of the opportunities in New York, and the sociable life of his Brooklyn parish. "In the silence that had lingered, she realised, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America."

What is being planned is her emigration. It might appear conventional that she and her mother avoid articulating their feelings about what is likely to be a permanent separation. What is stranger is that the narrative follows Eilis's own avoidance of this thought. "Even when she woke in the night and thought about it, she did not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go." Much of the narrative consists of her thoughts, yet restraint is the habit of her introspection. The habit is a necessity. Feeling her hopelessness in a foreign city, "she had no choice, she knew, but to put it swiftly out of her mind".

Restraint in others is also what wins sympathy from her. When a family death has brought her back to Ireland in the fourth and final part of the book, she almost tells Jim Farrell that she has "someone special in Brooklyn, a man to whom she would be returning soon" – but she does not. For she is won over by the intensity of Jim's restraint. "Everything he did now, every word he said and every move he made, seemed deliberate, restrained and well thought out." As the novel nears its end, Eilis is facing – or rather, avoiding – her choice. It is poetic justice that the decision is made for her, in an act of complicated assistance and revenge, by a character who she thinks no longer matters to her. Eilis takes her path through life because she has had to. In the novel's last paragraph, she imagines the future for the man she has not chosen, and for herself. "She almost smiled at the thought of it, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine nothing more." This is the novel's final sentence, combining reflectiveness with its protagonist's refusal to think about what might be regretted. Its restraint, at once stylistic and psychological, is the epitome of the whole.

• John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Colm Tóibín for a discussion on Thursday 26 August at the Scott Room, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets (£9.50) are available at theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/16/colm-toibin-book-club

Contributor

John Mullan

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