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Staggering in its simplicity.
on August 26, 2009
As a reader, when I read a novel, especially when I'm 'reviewing' one, in the end, my primary question is: 'Am I glad I spent the time on it?'
As a writer, when I read a novel (or a screenplay, or article, or any other piece of writing), especially when I'm 'reviewing' one, in the end, my primary question is: 'Would I like to have written it?'
In the case of Tóibín's 'Brooklyn', the answers would be, in order, 'Yes', and 'No'.
'Brooklyn' was such a strange animal to me. I write as I speak, as I converse, as I express myself in most ways: pithiness rarely rules the day. So to have such a poignant tale told with such reserve, by way of a narrative that's not that far off point-form...this style of writing is not my default choice. However, perhaps because of its -to me, maybe just to me- unusual qualities in this regard, it found a special place in my heart. Its quirkiness was endearing...and I do not mean that in a patronizing way in the least. (For the record, my heroes are John Irving, Pat Conroy, Mark Helprin and Ann-Marie MacDonald. One of my favourite stretches within a novel would be the first forty-or-so pages of Don Delillo's 'Underworld'. Now *that* is writing.) Yes, I'd be curious to read a 'filled-out' version of this 269-page threadbare novel. Yes, there were times I longed for 'more'. But its charms...and its effectiveness...were beyond question for me. So yes, I'm glad I spent the time reading it, I enjoyed it a ton.
But I could never see writing it. If I tried to accomplish even a short story cut from the same cloth, it would, no doubt, be terribly affected, and if successful, more an exercise in determination than creation. This is no knock against Tóibín; he is a master storyteller, in full command of his talents, and clearly told the tale precisely as he'd wanted to.
At the end, I was squirming, very uncomfortable with what was bound to happen as the story ran out to its conclusion. And backtracking to what had led there, I had to applaud the author's efforts, his construction, and the care with which he related what he related to the reader.
Having said all that, I'm rather amazed that it was 'twice short-listed for the Booker Prize'. It's good, sometimes great, but not a piece I would say was worthy of that degree of praise. It is an accomplishment, entertaining, thoughtful. But not something that will be remembered with any deep sentiment ten or twenty years from now.
(Personal rating: 8/10)