Colm Toibin's literary career has been gathering in force and reputation over the decades. He is 53, a stocky man with a large, bald head and expressive eyes. As an Irishman, he is a wanderer. His fiction and nonfiction works have wandered far.
I first interviewed Toibin in 1999, for the novel BlackWater Lightship. It was a contemporary tale set in Ireland, about three generations of women caring for a man dying of AIDS. But both of his subsequent novels are stories of exile: The Master, about Henry James, the American writer abroad; and now, Brooklyn.
I had the chance to meet Toibin in Dublin a year or two after our first interview. He has a wonderful old house near the center of town, full of paintings and full of light. But what I remember best, besides Toibin's warmth, is his fountain pen and notebook. It was suggestive of the intimacy he achieves in his literature.
In Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey leaves Enniscorthy, Ireland (Toibin's hometown), for Brooklyn in the early 1950s. We follow her across the sea and onto what seems like the gallows of loneliness. Because Toibin doesn't rush any of this, it's particularly painful and exquisite:
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.
In Eilis' loneliness, we discover something much broader: the loneliness of any people, dislocated in time and space. Right now, in an uncertain America, Eilis' journey has particular resonance. Toibin speaks in a County Wexford accent, with care and precision. He draws us into the humble and delicate moments of Eilis Lacey's journey. And we are easily able to imagine ourselves in her place.