‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin – Book Review

Blurb

Young Eilis Lacey dreams of life beyond the confines of her tiny Irish village, but unlike her beautiful sister, Rose, Eilis’ gifts are of a more practical nature: she has a head for numbers, and is a loving and dutiful daughter.

Yet her ambition cannot be hidden and soon is noted by the Parish Priest, Father Flood. Via a church contact, he arranges for Eilis to travel to America where a job opportunity has arisen in New York with a reputable “merchant of Italian origin”.

Eilis finds lodgings in an eccentric boarding house and ekes out an existence in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is 1950s Brooklyn, impressing her employer, outwitting her landlady, and even falling in love. It seems her dream is truly becoming a reality.

But then fate intervenes: a family crisis back home forces Eilis to make a choice between the past and the future, the old world and the new.

Told with a masterful and elegant simplicity, Brooklyn is a sublime Trans-Atlantic coming-of-age story.

My Review

Brooklyn tells the tale of a young Irish girl named Eilis who, unable to find suitable work, leaves her home behind her for the opportunities that America, and in particular Brooklyn, has to offer.

“She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a 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. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep”

This is a very quiet and subtle book. Eilis, the lead character, is extremely passive. She is not the feisty, badass heroine that so many other books try to write young women to be. She is reserved and noncommittal, never quite saying what it is she is truly feeling. But that is the beauty of ‘Brooklyn’, Eilis does not know how to give herself truly to anything; she does not yet know how she feels about life. So often her decisions have been made for her…including the decision for her to move to America. That was decided by her family and the priest. And she just willingly accepted her fate…
And yet I really liked Eilis. Okay at times I did want to almost shake her into making her mind up… especially when it came to her romantic interests… but that transition period from being under a parent’s wing to making decisions about your long term future is not easy. And I think it was beautifully handled.

“Until now, Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children.”

I really enjoyed Colm Tóibín’s writing style.
It felt familiar; like home. His turn of phrase, expressions used… they were simple yet beautiful. The characters spoke my language, they phrased things how I hear them phrased every day… yet it was all so very quiet, and so very understated.

I don’t often enjoy reading books by Irish authors; I tend to get overly critical of how they are portraying my beautiful homeland to the world at large…

Yet this time I was happy! There were no clichéd descriptions of rolling mists or mossy this or thats…. okay yes, we have all that here…
You want green? We have got A LOT of green!!!

But this time it didn’t feel like some tourist board advertisement, the descriptions of Enniscorthy town, of the surrounding Wexford countryside… it all felt more authentic, tangible.

Okay I’m intimately familiar with all things Wexford so I’m sure that influenced me but I really felt he captured an authentic snapshot of what life was like in 1950s Ireland. Colm Tóibín himself is from Enniscorthy and you could really feel his grá (love) for his hometown in how he wrote Eilis.

And then when the action of the novel moved to America it felt very real too…

I loved the idiosyncratic on-goings of the characters in the boarding house in which Eilis lived.
I very much enjoyed reading about her experiences at work, her studies…

In Brooklyn Eilis met a boy… this wasn’t some fiery, passionate romance… that wouldn’t be very ‘Eilis’. Theirs was a love story that perhaps burned brighter for one over the other…

It was all so quietly written about. Normally I like a book to have characters with lots of depth and lots of backstory… We didn’t really get that in this book… and that wasn’t a bad thing! It just further illustrated the isolation and loneliness that was experienced by young women like Eilis who moved to America in the 1950s… How being in America changed you, made you different to those left behind at home. It is a story that members of my own extended family could relate to you.

I very much enjoyed reading this book. So much so that I stayed awake into the wee small hours of the morning reading it. It is a very easy and calming read. It is not a book for those of you who love action and adventure; it probably is not even a book for those of you who love only romance… but it is a book for those of you who like a quieter more gentle type of read.

four stars

“None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them, because if they had, then they would have had to realise what this would be like for her.”

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8 thoughts on “‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Toibin – Book Review

  1. I really, really loved this book! Ever since I have been trying to understand just why. The way it is told is so subtle and so powerful:how she’s sort of sleepwalking through her own life. Although I am Irish-American and not Irish, Eilis’s family and the way they sort of communicate very indirectly and without drama felt very familiar.

    Nora Webster I thought was not bad at all, but no Brooklyn. Sadly, I could not get through The Heather Blazing.

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    1. I haven’t read either Nora Webster or The Heather Blazing yet but I’m hopeful of enjoying them both. I just identify so strongly with Tóibín’s turns of phrase, the way he crafts his characters. And absolutely agree with you that Brooklyn is a most beautiful story, the writing of Eilis’ character is almost underplayed. Definitely get what you mean about her sleepwalking through life. I think no matter whether you’re born in Ireland or you have Irish ancestry there’s just something innate with how we feel the world around us 🙂

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  2. Love your review Emer! I’ve been meaning to read this one ever since I saw the movie poster for it years ago! It looked so good and like it’d totally break my heart just a little bit. And seeing as it’s written about your homeland and you were happy with it (always good when it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a tourism ad!), I’m even more excited to be reading it! Although it does seem like the type of book that I’ll have to wait to be in the right mood for?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a quiet kind of book that suits a quiet kind of day I think. To me it’s quite subtle and understated but all the more beautiful for that. And definitely doesn’t feel like a tourism ad lol! I really do love Tóibín’s writing style. It’s got this honesty to it. He’s just a genius I think!

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