Wednesday, December 13, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín is one of my favorite writers, so I am working through his backlist. Brooklyn, originally published in 2009, does not have the complexity of The Master or The Magician, but it is still captivating. 

Eilis Lacey is a young Irish woman who, although very intelligent, is unable to find work except as a part-time shop clerk in her small Irish town after World War II. Her brothers have gone off to England to find jobs. She and her older sister Rose live with their widowed mother, who has a small pension. Eilis hopes to follow in Rose’s footsteps to some degree. Rose has a job as a bookkeeper and Eilis is taking bookkeeping classes. But Rose is also beautiful, an avid golfer, and has friends in the area. Eilis is quieter, plainer, and does not have Rose’s self-confidence.

Nevertheless, an opportunity arises (thanks to Rose and a visiting priest from the U.S.) for Eilis to emigrate to Brooklyn. She will have a full-time job as a clerk in a department store and a room in a respectable boarding house, all thanks to Father Flood’s intervention. Eilis does not want to go. She’s comfortable in her small town despite its lack of opportunity. Nevertheless, understanding what Rose and their mother are sacrificing for her sake, she goes.

It takes time, but Eilis does settle into life in Brooklyn. She is hardworking, polite, and quiet, and people like that. She does what she’s told and doesn’t complain. She starts taking night classes and is challenged by bookkeeping/accounting classes. Here, in the U.S., there is a chance for her to move up. At the same time, she meets a kind, thoughtful young Italian man, Tony, who falls in love with her. Together, they begin plans for a future. 

Eilis is hesitant at first. She’s fairly passive and seems to make decisions by inertia rather than autonomous desires. And when she is called back to Ireland after a family tragedy, inertia takes hold of her once more.

Eilis is both a sympathetic character and a frustrating one. Readers will be pulled along by the beautiful writing and by sympathy for Eilis and Tony (and Eilis’ family, and her friends in Ireland and acquaintances in Brooklyn.) Leaving the life you know behind is difficult whether it is the old life or the new one, and sometimes it does seem easier just to stay put.

A sequel to this novel, titled Long Island, is due out in May, and I’m curious to see how Eilis’ life has turned out.

1 comment:

  1. I was interested to hear about a sequel coming out now after so long since this book was released!!

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!