BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin
â€śShe had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Â Now, she felt she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way preparedâ€¦â€ť
Reviewed by Poornima Apte (AUG 13, 2009)
The very first page of Colm Toibinâ€™s new novel sets the stage beautifully: In Enniscorthy, a small town in Ireland, Eilis Lacey looks out the window as her more glamorous sister, Rose, returns from a game of golf with her professional acquaintances. Rose has an important job, provides for the family and is the arbiter of most conversations the homely Eilis shares with her mother. It is Rose who pays the bills and who writes letters of condolence when near and dear ones pass away. She is accorded all the importance and seat at the table that a primary wage earner in the 50â€™s was. When Eilis looks out the window, itâ€™s as if an adoring child is watching a parent return home.
So it comes as no surprise when, after a visiting priest from Brooklyn, Father Flood, suggests that Eilis should look for opportunities in America, the decision is already made for her. Rose decides her sister must go to the land of opportunityâ€”to seek out a better lifeâ€”perhaps even one that might make some use of the beginning bookkeeping skills she has learned in Ireland.
Eilis, who has learned to forever be obedient, to bend to everyone elseâ€™s wishes, is not sure she wants to emigrate but emigrate she doesâ€”to Brooklynâ€”in a painful journey by ship. Father Flood sets up her living arrangements with a fellow expat Mrs. Kehoe, and Eilis soons learns to adjust to her living conditions and her new more worldly-wise roommates. She gets a job on the sales floor at a local department store and even takes up bookkeeping classes at a college to keep her evenings busy and structured. Eilis hopes to maybe one day even move on a to a real bookkeeping job in the city.
Father Flood, through his parish, arranges for social events, and some of these are dances. It is at one such dance that Eilis meets Tonyâ€”a young Italian, who asks her out. In true form, Eilis canâ€™t say â€śNo.â€ť Slowly she begins to realize that Tony is the real dealâ€”a caring and loving man, someone she could set up a home with and spend the rest of her life loving.
Just as things get serious between her and Tony, Eilis receives news from home that forces her to return. Once home she begins to evaluate her life in Ireland through a new lens. It remains to be seen whether her experiences abroad will color her perceptions of life in the small town or not. â€śIt made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her motherâ€™s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew,â€ť Toibin writes of her return to Ireland.
The woman who until very recently has lead a very sheltered existence, finds the other side a mirage, as a mere fantasy, wherever she is. When Eilis is in Brooklyn, she gets caught up in its daily pace yet back in Ireland, everything that happened in America seems like it was part of a dream.
The high point of Brooklyn is the strong character studies. Toibin does a wonderful job of portraying the dynamics of women and their small foiblesâ€”whether through the interactions of Eilis with her roommates in Brooklyn or her friends and family in Ireland.
The Lacey womenâ€”especially Eilis, whom Toibin sketches precisely and beautifully, come through vividly. And this, for some, can also be a problem. One can find malleable and timid Eilis a tad tiring after a while. She can never say â€śNoâ€ťâ€”to her mother, to friends in Ireland who ask her out, to her sister, to Tony. After a while you begin to wish that instead of letting life just happen to her, that she invest more energy in shaping her future. Of course one could also argue that it is exactly because Eilis is so malleable that she reflects the immigrant experience so precisely. Eilis is a blank canvas. She changes nothingâ€”instead she lets things change her. The reader has to give Toibin this much: Till the very end, perhaps vexingly so, Eilis stays true to her character.
Colm Toibinâ€™s Brooklyn is a quiet and studied reflection on what it means to set roots in unfamiliar ground. It is worth a read even if one might occasionally wish for a protagonist with a little more spunk.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 285 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Scribner (May 5, 2009)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Colm TĂłibĂn|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of The Master|
- The South (1990)
- The Heather Blazing (1992)
- The Story of the Night (1997)
- The Blackwater Lightship (2000)
- The Master (2004)
- Mothers and Sons (2007)
- Brooklyn (2009)
- The Empty Family: Stories (2010)
- The Testament of Mary (November 2012)
- Walking Along the Border (1987)
- The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994)
- The Kilfenora Teaboy: A Study of Paul Duncan (1997)
- The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (2000)
- Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (2002)
- Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (2002)
Movies from books:
- The Blackwater Lightship (2004)
August 13, 2009
Â· Judi Clark Â· No Comments
Tags: Immigration-Diaspora, Ireland, Irish Â· Posted in: Costa Award (Whitbread), Europe, Family Matters, Literary, Man Booker Nominee, New York City, World Lit