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.
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In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic

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In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic

In 'Brooklyn,' Love Is Lost Over The Atlantic

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We turn now from the screen to the page and a tale that moves back and forth across the Atlantic, from the town of Enniscorthy, Ireland to bustling Brooklyn.

Author Colm Toibin has his main character, Eilis Lacey, setting out for America in the early 1950s. "Brooklyn" is Toibin's first novel since "The Master," a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004.

Colin Toibin, you've been on this show before, and we welcome you back.

Mr. COLM TOIBIN (Author, "Brooklyn"): Thank you.

LYDEN: "The Master" was about a big and important figure, Henry James, the novelist, and this book focuses on such a different life, a young woman's. Why did you decide to change the tone so greatly?

Mr. TOIBIN: I suppose that the idea simply came to me, and I certainly didn't want to return again to a world of duchesses and Italian light. I felt I had done that, and I felt slightly odd about it. You know, it isn't my world.

It was a world that I really had to go and investigate, but this is my world in the sense that I come from that town, from those sort of streets, and the lives of my aunts especially are all over the book, people's interest in glamour and clothes and nylon stockings and all those things where, when I was a little boy, the sort of world that I listened to.

LYDEN: Yeah. I must say you caught all those details of a woman's life at that time so beautifully. When Eilis Lacey emigrates to America, it actually is her first trip out of the country, and we could say very much that her older sister forces this, arranges it all. Tell us something about the move.

Mr. TOIBIN: Well, I was interested in that sort of dynamic within a family -that in those years, if a mother was widowed, one daughter would stay and live with the mother and generally not marry. I mean, this changed a decade later, but it meant that Rose and Eilis had to decide between them, almost silently, which of them will stay and which will go. And Rose decides that her younger sister should go.

LYDEN: Eilis lives alone in Brooklyn but not entirely alone. She goes to a boardinghouse, which is run by an Irish landlady. Her landlady is Mrs. Kehoe, a very central figure here.

Mr. TOIBIN: Yeah, I couldn't resist the boardinghouse. I thought what fun you could have with all the lodgers arriving and Mrs. Kehoe, who runs the boardinghouse, being so bossy and bad at certain times and demanding, no one is allowed to talk about boyfriends. Boyfriends, banned; politics, banned.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So basically, they just talk about clothes, and Mrs. Kehoe bosses them. And every time I wrote a line for her, I have to say I almost laughed myself at the next thing Mrs. Kehoe was going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOIBIN: I mean, for example, she does, Mrs. Kehoe doesn't think she'll buy a television, although a friend of hers has one, because she isn't sure they'll keep making programs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: (Unintelligible)

Mr. TOIBIN: She could be left with this television with nothing on it, and she didn't want to be caught like that.

LYDEN: Yes, though but she's a strict one. Would you read us a passage? Eilis is in Brooklyn, experiencing her first wave of homesickness. It's a few weeks after she's arrived.

Mr. TOIBIN: (Reading) 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. Nothing here in Brooklyn was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought.

LYDEN: That leaves me just feeling hollow, almost. There's such clarity in this, such a gentle gathering of force, and it's just crushing as time goes on, and there's absolutely no clutter in your writing here.

Now, I've read that in teaching, which you've done recently, you've campaigned against the back story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOIBIN: I certainly have. I found with my own book, "The Master," that I had done it too much, and I set out on a campaign as a result of reading Jane Austen very closely to do a seminar. We were looking at how the books are constructed.

Part of the power was that you didn't learn things about the past. It moved forward in a straight line, and you didn't want to know how Mr. and Mrs. Bennett met. And I began to think clearly about it, or not clearly maybe, but closely, and try and impose it on the students first before I've imposed it on myself, which was stop using back story or flashback as a way of sort of slowing down a book or messing up or ways of describing character.

Describe character using dialogue. Describe character using what the characters see or do or think, but not what they had done or where they had been. So yeah, I began a bit of a campaign. It was a losing battle, but the only person who was really affected by it, I think, was me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, you got something out of it, I'd say.

Mr. TOIBIN: I did, yeah.

LYDEN: Exile is a theme in this book. Why can't the exiled immigrants relate what's happening to them to the people back home, as it happens, I mean. Eilis never tells her mother the truth about her life. She's essentially leading a double life.

Mr. TOIBIN: I think that was one of the things that happened, especially in Ireland, that you left in order to improve yourself, and you couldn't write home and tell people, look, I'm really lonely, because you'd realize how much those letters were going to matter, that you needed to put good news or uplifting news into them.

People learn to play that game. In a way, it's something Henry James dealt with very well - that business of silence, of withholding information, of concealing things.

LYDEN: She can't even tell her mother, though, that she's fallen in love, and that seems the saddest and the steepest of her secrets.

Mr. TOIBIN: Well, I think the whole business of people emigrating was that no one ever told them, although everyone knew, especially if it was to the United States, that it was forever, and the party before you left was called an American wake in the sense that they knew you wouldn't come back.

And she can't tell her mother and that she knows how much it would break her mother's heart to realization that her daughter was going to stay in America or marry an American man. So she just doesn't say it, and it becomes a dreadful problem not saying it.

I think those experiences of those - you know, Ireland experienced emigration. It was so intense over more than a century, and I think what was lost wasn't just the population. But it was a way of communicating where sadness or things going wrong, you really wouldn't write home about them.

LYDEN: Colm Toibin's new novel is called "Brooklyn." It's been a great pleasure, as always, to speak with you.

Mr. TOIBIN: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You can read a passage about Eilis Lacey's life in Ireland at

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