Floating around the edges of my brain in this very very busy week has been Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. I keep glimpsing the movie posters (it feels like it ought to be called a movie, not a film) as I stride along tube tunnels rushing from one meeting to the next, and there was a lovely unignorable article on the costumes in last week’s New Yorker. The posters niggle at me: it looks so beautiful, the characters look well-cast, and everyone who is anyone says it is Very Well Done, but I won’t be going.
Ever since the bitter disappointment of the Harry Potter film franchise, where the Hogwarts staircases looked wrong and the Weasley twins weren’t hot, I am beyond wary of adaptations of my most beloved books. All it takes is one detail which doesn’t match how it all looks in my head, and I’ll be out. And as this is pretty much impossible to avoid, I shan’t be going. Another worry is that people will watch the film and not read the book. So this is, I suppose, a plea to read the book. And then see the film if you want, but, please, oh, please please please, read the book first.
It is a truly superb novel about love, disappointment, growing up somewhere far from home, told with such care and in the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read (unless of course you then go on to read Toibin’s latest, Norah Webster, which is more than a match for it). The bare bones of the story are this: Eilis, a young woman, is unable to find work in her native Ireland, so off she goes, all alone to Brooklyn. It is set in the 1950s; but not the whizzy 1950s technicolour of Grease and Happy Days, but the muted, one-good-dress-to-go-dancing-in, women-struggling-against-repression-actual 1950s. I don’t want to say any more because the plot is so simple and so perfectly told that you should just go and read it.
I wish someone had given it to me when I went off all alone on my gap year, to somewhere completely unknown to me, and without the comfort blanket of my best best best love-them-never-ever-apart-girlfriends and my mobile phone. Sure, millenial 2008 Senegal is a rather different prospect to 1950s Brooklyn, and I had a choice in what I was doing, and I had things like email and Facebook before it got clogged with the unecessary bumph of other people’s lives, and most importantly of all the book hadn’t actually been published yet, but still: it is the best book about leaving home and being far far away that I have ever read. It makes you realise it is all going to be OK, but not without you putting in some work, taking a deep breath, getting out and finding your own way of quelling the insistent tug of home, whilst showing that actually, that’s never ever going to go.
In the novel, Eilis ends up taking a nightime book-keeping course in Brooklyn and is very good at it. In Senegal, I started running a weekly breakfast for street kids, which sounds far holier-than-thou than it actually was. Like Eilis, I never thought that’s what I’d end up doing. She makes mistakes: the sort of mistakes anyone could make, and anyone does make, because when you’re young, or actually just when you’re human, you do make mistakes. But this isn’t a book about falling in love with a hapless naughty heroine: Eilis is just an ordinary girl, making her way through her own quiet life. That you care so much about her is the perfect testament to Colm Toibin’s quiet, utterly assured genius in taking a simple every day story, and making it into so much more. She isn’t special, but the book makes her so.
So I didn’t read it in Senegal, or when I went off to uni, or when I moved to Paris all by myself, which all would have really been the perfect times to read it. I read it on a sunlounger in Sardinia a year or so ago, in a heady 3 hour rush, sipping on Aperol Spritz, and that was still pretty perfect. Our bookshelf always has three copies on, ready for the inevitable dinner party query: ‘I need a really good novel to read: what can you recommend?’ No matter who asks, I’ll always recommend it. And surely, there can be no higher praise.