Colm Tóibín - Brooklyn; Patrick McCabe - The Holy City
Two Irish novelists tackle the ‘un-knowable’ central character
It would be a mistake to think of ‘Irish writing’ as a ‘kind’ of writing, for Colm Tóibín’s and Patrick McCabe’s latest novels – both written during Ireland's 'Celtic Tiger' boom years and published this year – are two very different beasts.
Tóibín’s Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a 1950s girl who leaves her mother and sister in small-town Ireland to take up a shop assistant job in New York – arranged for her by her sister and a kindly ex-pat priest. As her initial homesickness begins to numb, Eilis finds some comfort in her daily routine and evening studies and even meets a boy. He’s just getting serious when a death summons her home: old and new ties conflict and she must – in the end – make a choice.
It sounds a simple tale, and – on the surface – it is. Its progression is linear, without flashes back or forward. But Eilis is a more complicated heroine, and this novel is rooted firmly in her perspective.
She is intelligent yet unaware of her attractiveness; Tóibín’s prose, gently inflected with her Irish tones, is unshowy. Eilis understands what is unsaid without drawing attention to the act or achievement of understanding.
‘And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow become tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.’
Hers is a quiet drama of conclusions unspoken and feelings half-probed. Brooklyn’s stylistic simplicity masks ambiguous content.
Tóibín has cited the influences of Jane Austen and Henry James. Like Austen’s leading ladies, Eilis is a spectator in her own tale: alert yet passive, and unused to confronting things head-on. Like Anne Wentworth in Persuasion, Eilis perceives too acutely the tensions and expectations focussed in the fulcrum the dance hall and prefers to stand as a ‘wallflower’, presuming that she does so unnoticed. But her strange un-knowableness is that of a Henry James heroine. Like Isobel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, Eilis has the astonishing ability to deny herself – to deny even to ask herself – what she really wants. Finally, when she must choose between two futures, we are not convinced she wants either.
McCabe's The Holy City has Christopher ‘C.J. Pops’ McCool as its 67-year-old narrator. He is a very different kind of ‘un-knowable’. It becomes clear, in the early pages of this 212-page monologue, that he is not only unknowable, but thoroughly unreliable.
His disjointed life-story consists of flashbacks to small-town Cullymore in the swinging Sixties and reflections on life in modern Cullymore, now a clean Dublin suburb, where he lives with his pilfering Croatian girlfriend, ‘Vesna Pinocchio’. The bastard son of a landowning Protestant and a Catholic farmer, he grew up with a sense of thwarted entitlement and confused religious bearings.
He can (and does) wax lyrical about ’60s fashion, cigarette brands and pop icons, but when it comes to his ghastly though ill-defined crime he is less verbose. ‘It was a difficult and emotional time, and who in their right mind would want to revisit it?’, he protests. What we do know is that this crime stems from an unsavoury fixation with a devout Nigerian teenager, Marcus Otoyo, and leads in time to a psychiatric unit.
It is difficult here to judge between truth, lie, and delusion. C.J Pops is a narrator who presents dialogue (‘– Night, Vesna. – Night night, Christopher. Chris my dearest, debonair darling.’), only to backtrack casually, leaving nothing outside his elaborate imaginings (‘Although, obviously, she doesn’t use the word ‘debonair’. For Vesna, poor thing, can hardly speak English.’).
He veers between charming ‘looser’ and deranged racist (forcing Vesna to don black shoe polish in the image of Otoyo), but he is, by the end, more irritating than pathetic or disturbing. His clichéd street-speak grows tiresome (‘It was great. No, it was maj! – Yeah, baby, it’s a magic time! – It’s maj! Yeah, babes, it’s maj!’). It’s difficult to like a needy and confused racist, but it’s not difficult to find this one boring.
C.J. Pops is un-knowable because he is unconvincing: he reads more like narrative experiment than a character. Eilis’ un-knowableness is recognisable. She is a character who, like us, doesn’t fully understand herself and therefore cannot fully be understood. As in Henry James, what we have is ‘a sense of her shades’.
The Holy City is published by Bloomsbury. Brooklyn is published by Pan MacMillan.