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[201] Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín

brooklyn“She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there.” [69]

The premise of the novel is not new: a young woman who is torn between her family and her past in Ireland and the American who wins her heart in her new life in Brooklyn; however, in Colm Tóibín’s hands, it’s very engaging and hauntingly beautiful. Although the story of Eilis Lacey is told with straightforwardness, the simplicity and unillusioned lucidity of the language can be deceptive. When I finish the book, I come to appreciate the calm and plainness (which at first seems to be insipidity) that actually offers a rich perspective to a young emigre who struggles to find a place for herself in the ethnically diverse world of post-World War II Brooklyn.

In early 1950s, in Enniscorthy, in southeast Ireland, Eilis Lacey and her widowed mother depend on the earnings of her sister Rose, a bookkeeper at a local mill.Though skilled at bookkeeping, but owing to the miserable economy at the time, Eilis cannot find employment. Despite her intelligence, she settles for a pittance from working as a part-time shop assistant at an unwelcoming grocery store owned by a grumpy spinster. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor her in America, and little does she know that Rose has arranged for her relocation to better her life, she decides she must go for a brighter future.

Eilis’s character flaw becomes more salient as she embraces the opportunities of America. Even though she is far from being stripped of her heritage, taking residence at a lodging house that is like a patch of Ireland set down in a New York borough, bouts of homesickness overwhelms her. Now it dawns on her how much she has depended on her mother and Rose all her life.

Georgina, she thought, would know what to do, as would Rose or her mother, or indeed Miss Kelly. [43]

Between work in a department store and night bookkeeping classes, she has found love when she least expects it. Tony, an blond Italian, slowly wins her with patient charm. But being reserved and repressed as she is, Eilis sometimes is in doubt about the relationship, which proceeds on too fast a pace.

He was considerate and interesting and good looking. She knew that he liked her too, not only because he said that he loved her but by the way he responded to her and listened to her when she spoke . . . A few times in the dance hall, or even on the street, she had seen a man who had appealed to her in some way, but each time it was just a fleeting thought lasting not more than a few seconds. [148]

Her hesitation and fear are justifiable that she lives like an exile, in a country where she has no root. Even a promise of love, an invitation to bliss from Tony, rattles her nerves because she would have to accept that this is the only life she is going to have, a life spent away from home. Her decision (to stay in America and to get married) teeters precariously until a turn of event at home comes to her resolution, but not without a twist.

While some parts of the book are slow, but the subtlety and tedious insight are necessary to align readers with the perspective of Eilis, who is struggling to find a place for herself in the strange domain. Tóibín explores different aspects of her emotional complexities with a quiet skill, as Eilis hesitates between challenges of the new and the temptations of the familiar, until her predicament is resolved by a sudden change of climate. That said, symbols and motifs abound in the prose that depicts this struggle between living as an outsider and living as herself.

The novel also affords a myopic vision to the social psyche that was the “pre-melting pot” America. The setting throughout the book is racially strained and charged. Even though many different ethnic groups exist in America, they are rather isolated. Eilis lives in a boarding house in which the ledgers are all Irish American women. Tony and his friends have to disguise as Irish to attend the dances at the Irish parish. Most shocking at all to me is Bartocci’s opening its doors to colored women who shop for nylon stockings in special shades.

266 pp. ARC. May 2009

13 Responses

  1. Oh! I love Colm Toibin — I heard him read a year or so ago from his newest book ( short stories) and think he’s a masterful writer. Thank you so much for this review — I had no idea he has a new book out.

  2. I’m looking forward to getting this one from the library. I don’t think I’ve ever read this author, though I have a couple of his books!

  3. I remember feeling the same about The Master, which was slowly developing the details and character of Henry James. I guess you truly have to appreciate evolution of character in order to appreciate Colm Toibin. He does handle his story with a quiet skill. I’m looking forward to this new book.

  4. I’m not sure I’d want to read another book about Irish immigrants in Brooklyn (there seem to be too many), but I like the description of “the subtlety and tedious insight are necessary to align readers with the perspective of Eilis”. It seems like it might suit my style.

  5. bloglily:
    Mother and Son, the collection of short stories. I need to acquire a copy of that. Thanks for reminding me! 🙂

  6. Danielle:
    None of his novels move very quickly, but they are fairly well-written. I also recommend The Master and The Blackwater Lightship. 🙂

  7. John:
    It takes patience to read Toibin, and if you do peruse it slowly, you’ll be rewarded at the end. He’s a very observant writer.

  8. Biblibio:
    Toibin does have a knack to create the details of the environment of his characters.

  9. I’ve never been able to get into his writing. I tried once a while ago, but couldn’t finish the novel.

  10. Greg:
    It’s not a super engrossing read. Try The Rose Variations instead, which is more quirky but engaging.

  11. What a lovely review, and it’s something to appreciate a quietness in a narrative for its ability to tell a story without bashing one over the head with hollywood-sized plot developments and crashing chapter endings. It’s honestly my favourite book so far this year.

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