Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Week two: dialogue

In the small Irish town where Eilis lives with her elder sister and widowed mother, talk is guarded. "Say nothing until we are a mile away from that house," Eilis's friend Nancy tells her as they go out for a walk together. The novel's dialogue is full of commands not to speak or not to listen. Eilis's brother Jack has even taken the habit to England with him. "I'm telling you nothing more," he says, when she asks him about a certain "nice" English girl he knows. Eilis wonders how their mother will feel about her "favourite son" going out with an English girl. "Don't say a word to her."

Eilis and her mother do not exactly talk about what most worries them. When Eilis is about to leave for America, a stray snatch of dialogue with an unnamed neighbour catches all that her mother does not say to her.

The neighbour, almost casually, as a way of conversation, said: "You'll miss her when she's gone, I'd say."

"Oh, it'll kill me when she goes," her mother said. It is a shock: dialogue is for implying but not stating fears and feelings.

Yet it is because Tóibín's characters do not really exchange their thoughts that dialogue can also be comic. The novel has an acute ear for speech that brooks no response. The baleful Miss Kelly, who runs the most superior of the town's grocery shops, is peculiarly unanswerable. "Now there are people who come in here on a Sunday, if you don't mind, looking for things they should get during the week. What can you do?" Not question her meaning, certainly. Eilis watches as Mary, Miss Kelly's bullied assistant, puts up fly paper. "'No one likes flies,' Miss Kelly said, 'especially on a Sunday.'"

The novel's first part ends with Eilis enduring a grim third-class passage across the Atlantic. She shares a tiny cabin with an Englishwoman called Georgina, who smokes and swears and is free of the conversational restraints to which Eilis and the reader have become habituated. But at the opening of part two, with Eilis living in Brooklyn, a kind of silence settles on the novel. Mrs Kehoe, the landlady of her boarding house, comes from Wexford and is suspicious of talk. "As they sat at the table, she did not like the girls talking among themselves, or discussing matters she knew nothing about, and she did not encourage any mention of boyfriends." Dialogue has to take place via her, and she has something of Miss Kelly's gift for disapproving assertion. Regretting the "giddiness" that possesses her lodgers the day after a dance, she singles out one of them.

"That Diana has a terrible voice, God help her. If she squeals once more, I'll have to get the doctor or the vet to give her something to calm her down." That fantastic thought – "or the vet" – is an irrefutable squeeze of idiosyncrasy.

Around Eilis, people must be talking – the other girls in the boarding house, the workers and customers in the department store where she works – but only fragments of dialogue reach us. One day she goes for a walk with Miss McAdam, a prim girl from Belfast who works as a secretary, and a single sentence suffices to represent the talk that Eilis has to endure.

"I didn't come all the way to America, thank you, to hear people talking Italian on the street or see them wearing funny hats," she says. Dialogue is often covert monologue, and Eilis has to suffer it. When she meets Tony, her openness to what is evidently his courtship seems less to do with love, or even physical attraction, than with the pleasure of easy dialogue, unknown before in the novel. She agrees to marry him because of it, it seems.

Eilis returns to her hometown with a new confidence in her dialogue, and is courted by Jim Farrell. Will she stay in Ireland, or return to America? Her life is settled by a conversation. The novel began with Eilis being summoned to talk to Miss Kelly, though in truth to receive her commands. It ends with another such summons, and a dialogue in the cluttered sitting room above Miss Kelly's shop. Miss Kehoe, Eilis's Brooklyn landlady, is, she claims, her cousin, "So what I do is telephone her about twice a year." This is the 1950s, when a trans-Atlantic call is a rare and expensive thing. But the unreported phone conversation has certainly been worth Miss Kelly's while.

"And once she had news of her own, then she telephoned me back," Miss Kelly said. "So, now."

"And what did she say, Miss Kelly?"

"Oh, I think you know what she said."

That "So, now" is brilliant – on Tóibín's part and, horribly, on his character's part. She and we can feel the full power of what dialogue can imply.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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