BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

Book Quote:

“She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children.  Now, she felt she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared…”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Poornima Apte (AUG 13, 2009)

The very first page of Colm Toibin’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 50’s was. When Eilis looks out the window, it’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 opportunity—to seek out a better life—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 else’s wishes, is not sure she wants to emigrate but emigrate she does—to Brooklyn—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 Tony—a young Italian, who asks her out. In true form, Eilis can’t say “No.” Slowly she begins to realize that Tony is the real deal—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. “It 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 mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew,” 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 foibles—whether through the interactions of Eilis with her roommates in Brooklyn or her friends and family in Ireland.

The Lacey women—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 “No”—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 nothing—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 Toibin’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)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of The Master



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August 13, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Costa Award (Whitbread), Europe, Family Matters, Literary, Man Booker Nominee, New York City, World Lit

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