Reading Note:
Silence and Inference
23 November 2018

We were going to do nothing today, but Kathleen changed her mind: she could no longer go on wearing summer clothes. (Indeed!) It was long past time to switch the wardrobes in her two closets, one of which is ordinarily inaccessible, or at least hard to get to, thanks to an armchair laden with stuff. So I set up the coatracks, which we used to need for big winter parties, and Kathleen got to it.

Meanwhile, I finished re-reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. I had only the last part to get through. After two years in the New World, Eilis Lacey has returned to her native Enniscorthy to spend some time with her mother, who has been left alone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by the death of Eilis’ older sister Rose. (All the Lacey sons have had to migrate to England in order to find work; Eilis herself was despatched to New York for the same reason.) Upon arrival, all Eilis can think about is getting back to Brooklyn — and to the husband about whom her family and friends know nothing. But a friend’s wedding induces her to postpone her departure, and then she is offered the job that Rose had. A young man, who already owns his family’s pub, develops rapidly from a friend’s friend into a suitor. Like the brambles in Sleeping Beauty’s forest, ramifying local connections make it impossible for Eilis to disclose her secret marriage, which she begins to wish had not taken place. 

Eilis’s mistake, as she nestles into the familiar home life that she never wanted to leave in the first place, is in thinking that she is the only person who knows, or will ever know, the truth of her Brooklyn past. When this error is brought to her attention, in one of the most plausible coups in literature, Eilis makes several slicing decisions, and within hours is packed and ready to “go home.” Brooklyn‘s extraordinarily hasty ending would be unsatisfying if it did not dump a moraine of food for thought in the reader’s lap. 

Reading the book for the first time, I regarded Eilis as something of an Eve, yielding to the temptation to eat a forbidden apple. Seduced by the comforts of home, she overlooks the fact that she owes her positive reception in Enniscorthy to advantages that have accrued to her in Brooklyn. She cuts a more glamorous figure in her American clothes, and her completion of a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College has qualified her to take over Rose’s job. Weak, in other words. This time, I sensed something more fundamental at work, very likely because I have read and re-read Tóibín’s fiction so many times — most recently, Mothers and Sons; not long before that, my favorite them all, Nora Webster

Eilis’s mistake actually goes back to her Brooklyn days, where for a long time she says nothing to her family about Tony, the Italian-American plumber whom, even in Brooklyn, she passes off as Irish. (He’s blond and blue-eyed.) Eventually, she writes to Rose about her attachment to Tony, but Rose dies without learning just how serious the attachment is. Eilis has written to Rose at her business address, because it seems to both sisters very important to conceal the matter from their mother. Back in Enniscorthy, Eilis wonders if her mother has gained possession of the letters to Rose. But she says nothing about it, because that is the law of the Laceys of Enniscorthy.  

It isn’t really the net of new connections that traps Eilis in Enniscorthy, but the code of silence observed by a community obsessed with convention and respectability. Discretion would be the word for it, if it were more a matter of guarding family secrets from the outside world and less one of precluding candor within families. Eilis’s disinclination to mention Tony in letters to her mother is rooted in worries about the inferences that Mrs Lacey might draw from anything that Eilis might say. Eilis has a pretty good idea of what those inferences might be, but she cannot control them, and prejudiced, perhaps, by her guilt at concealing Tony’s Italian background from her American friends and neighbors, almost all of whom are Irish, Eilis deals with the problem by not mentioning anything. She is unprepared for Rose’s death, for returning to Enniscorthy married to a man of whose very existence her mother is ignorant. Unless, of course, her mother has read those letters to Rose. But Eilis knows that her mother will never mention seeing those letters unless forced to do so. 

So this time, although I appreciated Tóibín’s artistry in creating (in Enniscorthy, of all places) a sort of jardin féerique to delude Eilis into imagining that she can pack up her life in Brooklyn and store it away out of sight, I could sense Eilis’ strangled awareness of the meretricious nature of this enchantment. Everything looks good precisely because it accords with her reverting to the tribal code and disavowing the relative and certainly more genuine expressivity of life lived outside it. When Eilis learns that the secret of her marriage is not altogether hers to keep, she snaps out of the nightmare of resuming a surreptitious existence. The spiteful gossip who sounds like a wicked fairy is actually a fairy godmother. 

I forget which reviewer it was who attributed the tremendous intimacy of Brooklyn to the sense of watching everything over Eilis’s shoulder. How true: Eilis doesn’t tell us anything, either. 

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