Thursday, June 4, 2009

Colm Tóibín's "Brooklyn": The Heroic Moral Depths of "Everyday" Life

And as I offer some reflections on one book today, it occurs to me to recommend another.

I recently finished reading Colm Tóibín’s latest novel Brooklyn. I've long been fascinated by Tóibín, because he's an out gay Irish writer who manages to combine the Irish experience with being openly gay--and gracefully so.

Though Tóibín’s work has come to be known as "gay" fiction, Brooklyn is not, in any way a "gay" novel (though it has one tangential scene with a bit of lesbian content). It's a quietly told story of a young Irish woman growing up in Wexford after the second war, who realizes, as so many Irish young people have been forced to do until fairly recently, that her village held nothing at all for her by way of a future. She was talented and educated, and there was no work to fit her talents and level of education.

Her family collude to send her off to New York to seek her fortune. And that's, in a nutshell, the story of the entire book. It's a quietly told story in which nothing much happens, and everything happens, in the life of one young Irish woman following World War II. It's a story about how every single human life comprises high drama and pivotal moral challenges upon which everything depends.

I'm deliberately not providing many details about the plot, because in doing so, I would spoil the book for anyone who happens to read it after having seen this brief commentary on it. One aspect of the book that fascinates me, in particular, is its masterful way of exposing the quicksands that lie hidden in almost all "everyday" conversational exchanges, but above all in familial exchanges.

The Irish communities and the family on which the book focuses have that Irish penchant for bitter memory: the people whose lives are traced by Brooklyn are schooled in bitterness. And as in so many Irish communities (and human communities in general), bitterness pools beneath any ordinary word spoken in daily conversation, threatening to pull one down into its treacherous depths and to become not the subtext, but the text, of one's life.

This is a book about the moral life, then, about the monumental struggle of many of us in our "everyday" existence to rise above bitterness, above difficult circumstances, above injustice, and simply to live--to live as human beings and not as things reacting to what other human beings and life itself do to us. It is a book about the quiet beauty--as quiet as a soft Wexford voice itself--with which pivotal moral decisions appear in our life, affecting everything, demanding an answer.

It's a book about how not merely the lives we imagine as heroic or grand comprise such pivotal decisions. Every life involves them. They are the price of being human.

And everything at all depends on how we negotiate the challenge of these pivotal decisions.