I swear that there are things in Colm Toibin's books that just cut me open, they do (and the interview in that link deals with a few of them, as well as being quite wacky in places). I remember finding The Heather Blazing, the first book of his I read way back last century, a bit clinical: Brooklyn, while returning again to Ireland, seems more assured than his earlier work, even than the precisely calibrated Blackwater Lightship.
There is an almost miraculous engineering of narrative tension in this beautiful book. Toibin conveys the helpless ratiocination of demure Eilis Lacey in a third person narration that is barely coloured with her emerging sympathy for others, so that she just manages to stand out as a character from a cast of much stronger people and two vibrant, colourful backgrounds in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn.
The total effect is just riveting, and perhaps those who were expecting a noisier book may not be in complete sympathy themselves with Toibin's utter success in placing us in an inarticulate Irish migrant girl's shoes. There are several moments where the sheer pity of it all is just overwhelming: Rose prefers not to marry, as she notes what it has done to her friends, while later Eilis waits for her mother to tell her that she will miss her, and waits in vain.
Lives of quiet desperation indeed - the bitterness of the young women in Mrs Kehoe's boarding house could supply a pickle factory. I have some thoughts on how Anne Enright's comparatively tougher style may have influenced Toibin's work here, but for now I really just want to read it all again ASAP. And then his earlier books as well.
Another book that has given me a powerful buzz recently is Cate Kennedy's first novel, The World Beneath, which I found magnificent. The only fault I can find with this book is the use of the noun proletariat as an adjective on the first page, by Sandy, who it transpires is a bit clumsy with words anyway. Apart from that, it is a flawless, absorbing, zeitgeist brokering threehander. (And 'zeitgeist broker', as far as I know, is Kennedy's phrase.)
There's a fine, if brief, review in the ALR by Kerryn Goldsworthy and some notes here on her blog, and I concur completely with the parallel she draws with The Slap: I certainly noticed a similarly acute observational bent in this novel. Jo Case in her ABR review is concerned that structure sometimes detracts from the overall achievement in this book, but otherwise notes Kennedy's skill in bringing characters to life:
Kennedy crawls expertly inside the skin of her three central characters, assembling word pictures from telling details that enable us to know them better than they know themselves, and avoiding the novelist's trap of sacrificing nuance to secure the reader's sympathy.
(That link may endure for a few more weeks as the ABR website seems to be in flux. It may even stay there for a couple of months if we are lucky.)I am ready for another novel by Ms Kennedy anytime,and a film of this one, as Kerryn suggests, would be very welcome indeed.