Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

brooklyn‘Eilis (Ay-lish) Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America — to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood “just like Ireland” — she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.’

The book I’ve read and that description don’t quite marry in my mind. Demonstrative of how books are often as shaped by their readers as they are their authors. Eilish Lacey is a young Irish girl content in her life, though perhaps not happy. The strings of her life are pulled by the hands of society, she acts as she is supposed to and is instructed in life by her mother and sister, Rose. She is sent to America by her family and pulled back when tragedy strikes.

Colm Tóibín is a beautiful writer, Brooklyn falls off the page word by word in the most natural of ways. You get a sense of the world within the novel, without overindulgence. And as a story of the experience of an immigrant, it felt emotional and realistic – sadly the romances didn’t match that brilliance. Caught between two worlds and two loves, American holds Tony and the new frontier while Ireland has Jim and the familiarity of home.

While Eilish’s struggle with Tony, who to me she appeared to love but not be in love with, felt natural. He represented the new, her life as it could be. But, he also moved too fast and romanticised her. Yet, with between Eilish and Jim I noticed no affection where it was written, his character was misanthropic and self-pitying.

After her travels, her moving to a whole new country, all I wanted for Eilish was to be independent. American was providing her with the opportunity to support herself without the need to marriage or children, which she never seemed to desire. Even in America, it felt as thought she was going through the motions of what was expected of her as a woman of her time.

The moment Eilish had sex with Tony was the moment I felt they wouldn’t work. Tony loves the idea of love, and both have fallen without really knowing the other. I felt as though Tony had a dark side under all his understanding which would arise the more the honeymoon period ebbed away.

When Eilish has to return to Ireland I felt stifled along with her, trapped in the small town mentality. Where everyone knows everything, and every common courtesy is a snipe. Brooklyn is too big for these moments. Eilish can stand up for herself knowing that she cannot be ostracised in a city so big. As such, Jim becomes a plot device, to cause some tension between the new and the old, to allow her to be caught out and not stay home where life is familiar and safe.

I’ve read reviews where Eilish is described as frustratingly passive, and that seems to be very true – all you want is for her to speak out more than she even grows to. To speak her mind and do what she wants. Not what Tony wants in America and not what her mother wants in Ireland. But the novel stops short, and you’re never quite sure what Eilish feels or what she will do.

That stop, that unfinished business is what drew me back to Brooklyn, what kept me thinking about it. What happens after isn’t the point, Eilish has sealed her fate, and it lies in America.

9 thoughts on “Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

  1. Have you read ‘Nora Webster’? Tóibín explores the attitude towards and expectations of women in small town Ireland in the fifties in greater detail there and I think Eilish’s position becomes clearer as you read about Nora. (“Brooklyn’ is referenced in the first pages.) The thing I love most about Tóibín’s writing is the precision of the detail and the way in which every word matters. There is nothing there but what is absolutely essential. He is a very great writer.


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