In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic Author Colm Toibin's latest tale moves back and forth across the Atlantic, from the town of Enniscorthy, Ireland, to bustling Brooklyn, N.Y.

In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic

In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic

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Read an excerpt of Colm Toibin's latest novel, Brooklyn.

Colm Toibin's literary career has been gathering in force and reputation over the decades. He is 53, a stocky man with a large, bald head and expressive eyes. As an Irishman, he is a wanderer. His fiction and nonfiction works have wandered far.

I first interviewed Toibin in 1999, for the novel BlackWater Lightship. It was a contemporary tale set in Ireland, about three generations of women caring for a man dying of AIDS. But both of his subsequent novels are stories of exile: The Master, about Henry James, the American writer abroad; and now, Brooklyn.

I had the chance to meet Toibin in Dublin a year or two after our first interview. He has a wonderful old house near the center of town, full of paintings and full of light. But what I remember best, besides Toibin's warmth, is his fountain pen and notebook. It was suggestive of the intimacy he achieves in his literature.

In Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey leaves Enniscorthy, Ireland (Toibin's hometown), for Brooklyn in the early 1950s. We follow her across the sea and onto what seems like the gallows of loneliness. Because Toibin doesn't rush any of this, it's particularly painful and exquisite:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.

In Eilis' loneliness, we discover something much broader: the loneliness of any people, dislocated in time and space. Right now, in an uncertain America, Eilis' journey has particular resonance. Toibin speaks in a County Wexford accent, with care and precision. He draws us into the humble and delicate moments of Eilis Lacey's journey. And we are easily able to imagine ourselves in her place.

Excerpt: 'Brooklyn'

By Colm Toibin
Hardcover, 272 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $25

Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clerys in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded.

Eilis's bookkeeping classes were almost ended now; she had a manual on her lap about systems of accounting, and on the table behind her was a ledger where she had entered, as her homework, on the debit and credit sides, the daily business of a company whose details she had taken down in notes in the Vocational School the week before.

As soon as she heard the front door open, Eilis went downstairs. Rose, in the hall, was holding her pocket mirror in front of her face. She was studying herself closely as she applied lipstick and eye make-up before glancing at her overall appearance in the large hall mirror, settling her hair. Eilis looked on silently as her sister moistened her lips and then checked herself one more time in the pocket mirror before putting it away.

Their mother came from the kitchen to the hall.

"You look lovely, Rose," she said. "You'll be the belle of the golf club."

"I'm starving," Rose said, "but I've no time to eat."

"I'll make a special tea for you later," her mother said. "Eilis and myself are going to have our tea now."

Rose reached into her handbag and took out her purse. She placed a one-shilling piece on the hallstand. "That's in case you want to go to the pictures," she said to Eilis.

"And what about me?" her mother asked.

"She'll tell you the story when she gets home," Rose replied.

"That's a nice thing to say!" her mother said.

All three laughed as they heard a car stop outside the door and beep its horn. Rose picked up her golf clubs and was gone.

Later, as her mother washed the dishes and Eilis dried them, another knock came to the door. When Eilis answered it, she found a girl whom she recognized from Kelly's grocery shop beside the cathedral.

"Miss Kelly sent me with a message for you," the girl said. "She wants to see you."

"Does she?" Eilis asked. "And did she say what it was about?"

"No. You're just to call up there tonight."

"But why does she want to see me?"

"God, I don't know, miss. I didn't ask her. Do you want me to go back and ask her?"

"No, it's all right. But are you sure the message is for me?"

"I am, miss. She says you are to call in on her."

Since she had decided in any case to go to the pictures some other evening, and being tired of her ledger, Eilis changed her dress and put on a cardigan and left the house. She walked along Friary Street and Rafter Street into the Market Square and then up the hill to the cathedral. Miss Kelly's shop was closed, so Eilis knocked on the side door, which led to the upstairs part where she knew Miss Kelly lived. The door was answered by the young girl who had come to the house earlier, who told her to wait in the hall.

Eilis could hear voices and movement on the floor above and then the young girl came down and said that Miss Kelly would be with her before long.

She knew Miss Kelly by sight, but her mother did not deal in her shop as it was too expensive. Also, she believed that her mother did not like Miss Kelly, although she could think of no reason for this. It was said that Miss Kelly sold the best ham in the town and the best creamery butter and the freshest of everything including cream, but Eilis did not think she had ever been in the shop, merely glanced into the interior as she passed and noticed Miss Kelly at the counter.

Miss Kelly slowly came down the stairs into the hallway and turned on a light.

"Now," she said, and repeated it as though it were a greeting. She did not smile.

Eilis was about to explain that she had been sent for, and to ask politely if this was the right time to come, but Miss Kelly's way of looking her up and down made her decide to say nothing. Because of Miss Kelly's manner, Eilis wondered if she had been offended by someone in the town and had mistaken her for that person.

"Here you are, then," Miss Kelly said.

Eilis noticed a number of black umbrellas resting against the hallstand.

"I hear you have no job at all but a great head for figures."

"Is that right?"

"Oh, the whole town, anyone who is anyone, comes into the shop and I hear everything."

Eilis wondered if this was a reference to her own mother's consistent dealing in another grocery shop, but she was not sure. Miss Kelly's thick glasses made the expression on her face difficult to read.

"And we are worked off our feet every Sunday here. Sure, there's nothing else open. And we get all sorts, good, bad and indifferent. And, as a rule, I open after seven mass, and between the end of nine o'clock mass until eleven mass is well over, there isn't room to move in this shop. I have Mary here to help, but she's slow enough at the best of times, so I was on the lookout for someone sharp, someone who would know people and give the right change. But only on Sundays, mind. The rest of the week we can manage ourselves. And you were recommended. I made inquiries about you and it would be seven and six a week, it might help your mother a bit."

Miss Kelly spoke, Eilis thought, as though she were describing a slight done to her, closing her mouth tightly between each phrase.

"So that's all I have to say now. You can start on Sunday, but come in tomorrow and learn off all the prices and we'll show you how to use the scales and the slicer. You'll have to tie your hair back and get a good shop coat in Dan Bolger's or Burke O'Leary's."

Eilis was already saving this conversation for her mother and Rose; she wished she could think of something smart to say to Miss Kelly without being openly rude. Instead, she remained silent.

"Well?" Miss Kelly asked.

Eilis realized that she could not turn down the offer. It would be better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.

"Oh, yes, Miss Kelly," she said. "I'll start whenever you like."

"And on Sunday you can go to seven o'clock mass. That's what we do, and we open when it's over."

"That's lovely," Eilis said.

"So, come in tomorrow, then. And if I'm busy I'll send you home, or you can fill bags of sugar while you wait, but if I'm not busy, I'll show you all the ropes."

"Thank you, Miss Kelly," Eilis said.

"Your mother'll be pleased that you have something. And your sister," Miss Kelly said. "I hear she's great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out."

Miss Kelly turned and began to walk slowly up the stairs. Eilis knew as she made her way home that her mother would indeed be happy that she had found some way of making money of her own, but that Rose would think working behind the counter of a grocery shop was not good enough for her. She wondered if Rose would say this to her directly.

On her way home she stopped at the house of her best friend Nancy Byrne to find that their friend Annette O'Brien was also there. The Byrnes had only one room downstairs, which served as a kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and it was clear that Nancy had news of some sort to impart, some of which Annette seemed already to know. Nancy used Eilis's arrival as an excuse to go out for a walk so they could talk in confidence.

"Did something happen?" Eilis asked once they were on the street.

"Say nothing until we are a mile away from that house," Nancy said. "Mammy knows there's something, but I'm not telling her."

They walked down Friary Hill and across the Mill Park Road to the river and then down along the prom towards the Ringwood.

"She got off with George Sheridan," Annette said.

"When?" Eilis asked.

"At the dance in the Athenaeum on Sunday night," Nancy said.

"I thought you weren't going to go."

"I wasn't and then I did."

"She danced all night with him," Annette said.

"I didn't, just the last four dances, and then he walked me home. But everybody saw. I'm surprised you haven't heard."

"And are you going to see him again?" Eilis asked.

"I don't know." Nancy sighed. "Maybe I'll just see him on the street. He drove by me yesterday and beeped the horn. If there had been anyone else there, I mean anyone of his sort, he would have danced with her, but there wasn't. He was with Jim Farrell, who just stood there looking at us."

"If his mother finds out, I don't know what she'll say," Annette said. "She's awful. I hate going into that shop when Jim isn't there. My mother sent me down once to get two rashers and that old one told me she didn't sell rashers in twos."

Eilis then told them that she had been offered a job serving in Miss Kelly's every Sunday.

"I hope you told her what to do with it," Nancy said.

"I told her I'd take it. It won't do any harm. It means I might be able to go to the Athenaeum with you using my own money and prevent you being taken advantage of."

"It wasn't like that," Nancy said. "He was nice."

"Are you going to see him again?" Eilis repeated.

"Will you come with me on Sunday night?" Nancy asked Eilis. "He mightn't even be there, but Annette can't come, and I'm going to need support in case he is there and doesn't even ask me to dance or doesn't even look at me."

"I might be too tired from working for Miss Kelly."

"But you'll come?"

"I haven't been there for ages," Eilis said. "I hate all those country fellows, and the town fellows are worse. Half drunk and just looking to get you up the Tan Yard Lane."

"George isn't like that," Nancy said.

"He's too stuck up to go near the Tan Yard Lane," Annette said.

"Maybe we'll ask him if he'd consider selling rashers in twos in future," Eilis said.

"Say nothing to him," Nancy said. "Are you really going to work for Miss Kelly? There's a one for rashers."

From Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2009 by Colm Toibin. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.