Some of the more annoying comments I've heard and read recently have come from those who describe a novel as a man's novel, or a woman's novel, and with a number of sub-categories also assumed. Now I do recognise that writers of big-selling novels write for target audiences, and are often pushed by publishers to stick with the known commercially successful formula. Fine, let them do what works for them. My problem though, is that some of my favourite novelists are women, some of my favourite novels are consigned to the constraints of the category 'woman's novel', and some of those are amongst the best explorations of female experience available to a man! Oh, and just to mix it a bit more, you then have a novelist like Colm Toibin who writes with understated and nuanced wisdom about the experience of a young Irish woman in the 1950's, finding herself, finding her way and looking for her place in a world that offers no certainties.
This isn't in any sense a novel to be dismissed, stereotyped, or otherwise reduced in its achievments. If the novel is a literary form that enables human experience to be told, and if the telling of that experience cherishes and celebrates what it means to be a human being, and if in the telling what is cherished and celebrated is a life in which choices have defining consequences not only for what we do but for who we are, then this novel is a gem, glinting and glowing with humane observation.
- The jealousies and commitments of siblings growing up and competing for the advantages of life but caring for each other's welfare
- the struggle to make ends meet in hard economic times, and the reductionist snobbery of those who look down their noses on people who want to build their future
- the loneliness and homsickness of those who move away from home and have to find their own place, rely on their own wits and work, and weave their own network of relationships within which to live
- the ties and burdens of family responsibilities, and how these are almost never fairly distributed
- the first intimations of love emerging from friendship and growing into a longing for permanence and faithfulness
- the death of one we love, and have depended on as a landmark that makes sense of life's geography, and as a benchmark that demonstrates what a life well lived might look like
- the dilemmas when two kinds of love threaten to cancel each other out, and love for lover and love for family force a choice in which it is impossible to avoid heartbreak
In this novel, Brooklyn, all of these, and much else, are threads woven into a tapestry that has subtelty, variety, and central images which are cleverly connected to the whole canvas. Tobin enables us to understand the inner world of Eilis, who emigrates to America, and through her eyes and experiences we observe what it means for her to 'get on in life', and what it costs, and why in the end, she has to bear the weight of consequence that settles on her own choices. And any reader, regardless of gender, will find in Toibin's gentle probing psychology and his underlying affirmation of those human relationships that define us most, important clues to many of our own experiences as they coincide with the examples given above.
And so yes, this is a book I'd ask a pastoral theology class to read. Apart from some obvious questions arising from the points earlier noted, I'd want them to reflect on how such sympathetic insight into human longing and failure; how such hopefulness and affirmation of life's possibilities, how such humane faith in people and their lives so replete with significance waiting to be discovered, how all that can be translated into a pastoral disposition that enjoys, likes and loves people.
The Living Bible is hardly the most reliable rendering of tthe Bible text. But occasionally, it delights in its freshness. 2 Peter 1.7 is one such rare occasion: "enjoy other people, and come to like them, and finally you will grow to love them deeply." That is what Toibin is teaching in this novel. Oh, I know. The novelist may well laugh at any suggestion he set out to teach anything. So let me rephrase; that is what any careful reader of Toibin is more than likely to learn, that people, in all their complexity and fragility, in all their simplicity and strength, in all their potential and actual growing, offer no guarantees as to how their story will unfold. But they are to be enjoyed, liked, loved, precisely because they like us, are stories still in the telling.