“Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”
Another major Irish talent. This one from County Wexford. A professor no less in creative writing. You probably knew that. This won the 2009 Costa novel award. Talk among yourselves while I catch up.
His writing is deceptive. Nothing is happening. He might be telling you about your loved cousin and is etching in colours and thoughts as he rambles. His heroine Eilis complains of the lack of news and details in her letters from home while hers are written in the third person. Toibin has no such inhibitions. It is the 1950s we deduce, the post war diaspora of an Irish family to…well the title gives it away. We are in the brownstone stoops with the Jewish and the Italians and the Poles. The humour catches you like a dig in the ribs, the dialogue crackles and the narrative is so carefully drawn that every sentence becomes essential.
Often men writing as women (or women writing as men) is a trapdoor, but Toibin keeps a polite distance, the invisible, neutral companion. Small vignettes fill in the details. A Sunday job, a conversation with a brother, a journey on a ship…Toibin is careful to stay tightly focussed on his characters. For him it is the story telling that is the all, even there is a smack of the village gossip in his approach…did-you-hear-what-happened-when-the-Lacey-girl went-to-the-u-s-of-a? You believe it because it is so uncontrived, so mundane, so everyday. Momentous moments – personal and historic – are passed around like scones in a front parlour chat. More tea, father?
Curiously Wikipedia says Toibin does “not favour story telling”. Well Mr Encyclopedia, perhaps there is more than one way to tell a story? Sometimes plot debases. This is a pure form. A historic form, legend being passed down. This might have been called the Ballad of Eilis Lacey. A story in the wiki explanation I presume would therefore be a shoot-em-up Dan Brown or a Geoffrey Archer or a Lee Childs.
One rule of good writing Toibin observes here is: Never lose focus. Stay on the the subject. Never waiver. It is the same as telling a joke – there is just an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. Nothing else. It is one reason even celebrity claptrap can work because it is just me, me, me. Ultimately people are interesting, if you let them. They, after all, own the condition. The camera does much of this for film, but cannot get under the shirt, into the feelings, the motivations, the fears beneath the surface. And where here passages can be linked across days, months the focus on the person is the same. In film, this would be a visual penance and ultimately boringly one dimensional. Eilis is far from one dimensional.