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Harper's Magazine
Friday, August 14th, 2009
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by Colm Toibin


A review by Benjamin Moser

So many dramas turn on a word misunderstood, taken out of context, or meant for other ears -- spoken in anger or illness or inebriation; faultily reported, maliciously omitted, or lost in translation -- that a stoic silence might reasonably seem one's best, or only, defense. But silence can be just as treacherous, Colm Toibin suggests in Brooklyn, a novel peppered with conversations like this:

"It's so good to see you," she said quietly to Patty.

"I think I know what you mean," Patty replied.

The book contains so much elision -- "She already believed that he had told them too much about her"; "She tried to say as little as possible and then worried that they might think she had something to hide"; "There was in the way she stood and gazed at her something clear that Eilis knew she would never be able to tell anyone about"; "Whatever way he looked at her, he managed to let her know that he meant more than he said" -- that unspoken words could almost be said to be the novel's main characters.

Toibin's novel, indeed, is as much about the gap between what people say and what they mean as it is the closely observed story of an Irish girl who exchanges her hometown for Brooklyn in the 1950s. The uprooted Eilis works in a large shop owned by Italian Americans and takes evening accounting classes with a Jewish professor, but otherwise her new world is much like the one she left. An Irish priest and a scheming Irish landlady watch over her, until she meets an Italian American named Tony, whose exuberant family comes as a welcome escape from her courtly, mannered world.

For everyone in the novel, physical distance counts for little when compared to the gulfs they themselves create with the things they choose -- or, more often, choose not -- to say. Eilis's sister, back in Ireland, chooses not to tell Eilis, or anyone else, that she is terminally ill; Eilis, when she returns to comfort her mother, chooses not to tell her mother that she has married Tony until hours before her departure for New York, at which point her mother doesn't even ask his name. During a wrenching bout of homesickness, Eilis resolves not to say anything about it to her family: "None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now."

Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of Why This World.

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