Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
|Brooklyn by Colm Toibin|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Paul Curd|
|Summary: A deceptively simple story of a young woman who leaves 1950s Ireland for New York, falls in love and then returns to her home town. But Brooklyn is about much more than that, and Tóibín's understated prose has a depth and resonance that is a real pleasure to read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: April 2009|
Colm Tóibín's quietly powerful new novel, Brooklyn, opens in the author's own home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford in the 1950s. We are sitting with his conscientiously introverted heroine, Eilis Lacey, as she watches through the upstairs living room window as her more glamorous older sister Rose walks briskly home from work. Rose is popular at the local golf club, with many male admirers. Meanwhile, Eilis' three brothers have all gone to England where there is work to be had. There are few opportunities in Enniscorthy, for employment or anything else. Eilis is lucky to be offered a Sunday job in Miss Kelly's grocery shop, a shop Eilis' widowed mother will not enter. Later, Eilis will entertain her mother and sister with imitations of Miss Kelly's voice. Showing everything only through Eilis' eyes, Tóibín brilliantly evokes life in the claustrophobically tight-knit town.
Then without Eilis asking her, Rose arranges her younger sister's escape. At the golf club, she encounters an old friend of their father, a priest who has returned on a visit from his Brooklyn parish. Father Flood comes to tea and it slowly dawns on Eilis that 'it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.' Although she does not want to go, and thinks Rose would be the one better suited to a new life in America, Eilis pliantly goes along with the plan.
After a seasick-wracked third-class journey by liner, she arrives in Brooklyn. Father Flood has arranged lodgings for her in an all-girl boarding-house run by an Irish woman. He has also arranged a job for her in a department store, and on Friday nights there is a weekly Irish dance in the parish hall. It is all very 'home from home'. This depiction of the emigrant experience (so different from the 'tourist in New York' depiction you might expect) is pitched to perfection. Then, just as she is beginning to succumb to a serious bout of homesickness (again, brilliantly evoked by Tóibín) Eilis succumbs instead to Tony, an Italian-American plumber. She seems to have found True Love and genuine happiness.
Then Eilis receives terrible news; she must return to Enniscorthy. Such a homecoming, where the protagonist returns a different (in this case, more glamorous) person, has been the stuff of fiction since the ancient Greeks. But, as always, Tóibín plays it in a minor key. Unable to disappoint those closest to her, who expect her to stay, Eilis puts off her return journey. Soon she slips back into the old familiar way of life, until her sojourn in Brooklyn seems no more than a dream, and Tony is becoming 'no more than a shadow at the edge of every moment of the day and night'. Then comes the final, unexpected yet inevitable twist.
I loved this book. The story is simple enough, but its strength lies in its elegant subtlety: the seemingly straightforward 'voyage and return' plot that nevertheless encapsulates such a range of emotions; the clear, precise prose that carries so much underlying meaning; the inner thoughts and experiences of Eilis Lacey that reveal so much about the human condition. The writing is understated but often breathtakingly good; a perfect economy of language that seems so effortless and yet packs so much into so few words.
I would be surprised if Brooklyn does not make the Booker shortlist, at the very least. I found it thought-provoking, moving and brilliantly written.
Further reading suggestion: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
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