Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
After a string of novels which failed to fully engage me it was a pleasure to pick this one up.
Toibin is the master of understatement and he has the ability to write youth with all the elegance of a Scott-Fitzgerald.
In the following passage Eilis spends Christmas helping out with the homeless:
After a while Eilis noticed that two men had taken out fiddles and another a small accordion; they had found a corner and were playing as a few others stood around and listened. Father Flood was moving about the hall with a notebook now, writing down names and addresses and nodding as old men spoke to him. After a while he clapped his hands and called for silence but it took a few minutes before he could get everyone’s attention.
‘I don’t want to interrupt the proceedings,’ he said, ‘but we’d like to thank a nice girl from Enniscorthy and two nice women from Arklow for their hard day’s work.’
There was a round of applause.
‘And, as a way of thanking them, there’s one great singer in this hall and we’re delighted to see him this year again.’
He pointed to the man whom Eilis had mistaken for her father. He was sitting away from Eilis and Father Flood, but he stood up when his name was called and walked quietly towards them. He stood with his back to the wall so that everyone could see him.
‘That man,’ Miss Murphy whispered to Eilis, ‘has made LPs.’
When Eilis looked up the man was signaling to her. He wanted her, it seemed, to come and stand with him. It struck her for a second that he might want her to sing so she shook her head, but he kept beckoning and people began to turn and look at her; she felt that she had no choice but to leave her seat and approach him. She could not think why he wanted her. As she came closer she saw how bad his teeth were.
He did not greet her or acknowledge her arrival but closed his eyes and reached his hand towards hers and held it. The skin on the palm of his hand was soft. He gripped her hand tightly and began to move it in a faint circular motion as he started to sing. His voice was loud and strong and nasal; the Irish he sang in, she thought, must be Connemara Irish because she remembered one teacher from Galway in the Mercy Convent who had that accent. He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words – ‘Ma bhionn tu liom, a stoirin mo chroi’ – and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength of his voice and the confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair.
Slow, thoughtful, but interlaced with some lovely comic moments, Brooklyn is a real treat. This is Colm Toibin at the height of his powers, and is not to be missed.