Brooklyn

April’s Book Club book was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.

It wasn’t my cup of tea. I was bored reading it and it felt like a chore. But that wasn’t because of the skill or talent on display, both of which were impressive. It was more about the subject matter. The novel is about a young Irish girl who emigrates to the US in the ’50s. It’s character driven and I like plot-heavy novels.

There were some enjoyable moments. There is a particularly visceral depiction of the effects of sea sickness which I thought stood out as a single instance of colour and physicality. For me this was the best scene in the book. Throughout the novel the heroine’s relationships are characterised by a complete inability to express emotion. It was deftly portrayed. The heroine’s mother, especially, had a habit of saying the opposite of what she thought. The isolating and distancing effect that this has was captured and I found that moving. Towards the end, the heroine is expected to give up her future to return home and pressured is applied through a brother’s letter and through the weight of expectation on the part of neighbours. Because, of course that’s what a woman should do.

Aside from that, the heroine is largely passive. What happens to her seems to happen without any agency or passion on her part and I found it difficult to identify with her. There was no sense that she wanted to be with either of the men she was given – and I’ve no doubt that’s what the author intended – and I couldn’t see how she would go along with it. I’m sure that many women of the time would have behaved and felt just that way, but I didn’t like her for it.

In terms of the technique of writing, this novel is quite deft. The characterisation is excellent and the author shows you who they are through their actions and words. I always had the sense that what I was reading was what the author intended me to read. The sense of isolation through not knowing what people were thinking or feeling was strongly conveyed through a slight dissonance of words and actions, through body language, and through knowledge gained later in a second hand way. All techniques that can be put to good use.

If you like character-driven fiction this is a well written and subtle book. Not enough dramatics and/or silliness for my tastes.

In non-fiction, I picked up Survival of the Sickest by Sharon Moalem. The theory is that some of the most lethal diseases that humans are prone to must have had an evolutionary benefit in the past or they would have been naturally de-selected. It’s a highly readable book and the theory is certainly plausible. Well worth a look.

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