by Colm Tóibín
When I finished the book and read a review by the Guardian critic, who thinks that Colm Tóibín is some kind of literary giant, I honestly wondered whether I had been reading the same book. Apparently the novel is full of subtle nuances and tells us much about repressed feelings, social interactions of the period, and so on. Really?
To be fair, the Guardian critic isn’t alone. Brooklyn has garnered some impressive book awards and has now been made into a successful film which may even win an Oscar or two. This is why I decided to read the book before seeing the movie.
I’m sorry, but I found the novel a piece of lightweight fluff, and I assume the film producers didn’t have to work very hard to make a better job of this simple story than the author did.
Brooklyn is set in the early 1950’s and is an insubstantial piece about a young, naïve woman from an Irish provincial town (village?) who travels to New York by ship to make a new life for herself in The USA. I thought that the story might have potential and that I was in for a very good read, especially as the film adaptation has received many plaudits.
To be honest, I kept waiting for the book to explode into life – but it never did. There is ten times more excitement and magnetic story-telling in a dozen pages of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ than there is in the entire 272 pages of Brooklyn.
On the plus side, Brooklyn is very easy to read. It doesn’t tax your brain too much, unlike Nobel Laureate Toni Robinson’s ‘Beloved’, (See my previous review). The prose in ‘Brooklyn’ is easy to follow, without being in any way inspiring. There are no masterly or poetic descriptions of rural Ireland or New York in the 1950’s, and most of the characters are superficial stereotypes of the period.
But apart from the lack of an absorbing story, the biggest crime in my book is the distinct lack of dialogue. A majority of conversations between characters are ‘reported’ – especially in the first half of the book, and it is only in the final chapters that the author decides to up the speech count – and even then, it is still barely adequate.
I think the lack of dialogue is the main reason that the story does not come to life. It is difficult to relate to or empathise with the main protagonists.
The style of writing is similar to the style adopted by biographers where there is usually a lack of dialogue. But biographies are true accounts of someone’s life, so any ‘invented’ speech would not ring true. Thus, reported speech is commonplace in biographies as few people can recall actual conversations, word for word.
But, in my humble opinion, it is a cardinal sin to use reported speech extensively in a novel. Tóibín reports nearly all the conversations in his book in the third person. I can only assume that this is either through laziness or he is unable to write good dialogue. He even reports most of the letters between the protagonists in the third person and summarises the letter’s contents rather than telling us what they actually wrote.
I had originally given Brooklyn three-stars, but I when I remembered that I also awarded ‘The Go-Between’ three stars, I have changed the rating to two stars as, in spite of its faults, ‘The Go-Between’ is a much better book than Brooklyn.
I’ve just started reading Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’. There’s more dialogue in the first three chapters than in Colm Tóibín’s entire book.
I feel I must be missing something. But what do I know? Most people who are knowledgeable in literary world seem to love Brooklyn and consider it something of a masterpiece.
Or is it yet another case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?