Friday, April 16, 2010

The Miniaturist

I've enjoyed a couple of Colm Toibin's short stories set in rural Ireland, but his acclaimed last novel "Brooklyn" is the first novel I've read. It's not really possible to give it a full review without providing "spoilers" and I'd certainly not discourage anyone from reading what is an elegant miniature. Toibin has previously, in "The Master", written about Henry James, and this book is utterly Jamesian, in tone, in subject and in pace. It tells the story of young Irish girl in the 1950s (early 50s I'd guess, though this is never made explicit), who is given an opportunity to travel to America, where she gets a job in a department store. Transplanting the Jamesian story of a transatlantic displacement to the 1950s, Toibin maps out Eilis Lacey's life in minute detail. The pace, in the first half of the book, is deliberate, langorous, and at times, quite boring. You need to stick in there for the pay off, but it's a short book. I'm not sure whether the accumulation of detail - which seems a common technique in contemporary fiction, particularly when it is looking back (I'm thinking of Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency as much as Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) - is really necessary, though through it, Toibin provides the books comic moments as well as sketching his heroine's personality. Zoe Heller refers to the novel as "the most compelling and moving portrait of a young woman I have read in a long time", yet Lacey rarely, for me, comes alive as a living, breathing creature. Her whole life is dominated by external forces, which though essentially benign, seem to leave this quiet young woman almost incapable of independent action. It seems hardly believable that it's set in the same decade as Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road" for instance. Toibin seems to have wanted to write a novel echoing not just James, but Edith Wharton, about a young life that is totally constrained by both her upbringing and temperament. Though it is Charlotte Bronte's Lucy Snowe in "Vilette" who Eilis brings most to mind. It is perhaps the last moment in history, and in location (rural Ireland), that such a heroine seems entirely believable. As I've said, its a "miniature", and its his triumph that he gives us a life not through a deep exploration of her inner thoughts, but from the accumulation of small moments, small actions. At the end, we are left with a lingering disquiet as we try and untangle what has actually happened in a very quiet book. That I'm willing to accept this means that Toibin finally brings me round, even if I still don't quite believe in either Eilis or her situation. It won the 2009 Costa novel award, and some were disappointed that it didn't do better in the Booker. It's a very old fashioned novel, written in an overly plain style, an elegant, but underwhelming English. The smalltown Irish community must be one of the most over-worked subjects in literature, and Toibin simply describes (and describes simply), rather than giving us the verbal joys, of, say, Anne Enright's "The Gathering." Its a solid work, but don't expect any literary fireworks.

(BTW Toibin is spelt Tóibín but can't get Blogger to spell it correctly except going into italics...)

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