Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
9/10, a beautiful story about a young Irish emigrant to New York
I saw Colm Tóibín read a passage from Brooklyn a year and a half ago, and promised then that I would buy it when it came out. I fulfilled my promise when I saw it on the shelf recently, and I’m pleased to say that the book lives up to the promise of the reading.
It’s the story of Eilis, an Irish girl who emigrates to America in her late teens or early twenties. She builds a life there on her own, and then a tragedy calls her back to Ireland (it’s very like The Dive From Clausen’s Pier in that way).
Like William Trevor, Tóibín writes in what I can only describe as a very Irish way. He writes lyrically, in a narrative that has direction but not urgency, in which things happen in their own time and the pleasure is in the journey. We meet people and get to know them, and they’re all important in Eilis’s life in one way or another. But I don’t get the sense that each incident is necessary to explain the progression of the story–it’s not critical to show that she spends Christmas Day helping in the parish, or her attitude toward the African-American women who come in to the store. What each little incident does is build up the picture of her life in America, to contrast with her life in Ireland, and it’s in these pictures that the story comes to life.
I do love William Trevor, but Tóibín might be a little ahead of him in my bookshelf now. Although they write with the same lyricism, Tóibín writes with a lighter touch. The scene with Eilis’s first Atlantic crossing, which he read at Stanford, involves their neighbors locking the door to the shared bathroom, and poor Eilis not only forced to pee in a mop bucket, but becoming violently seasick later in the night. Fortunately, her feisty companion comes to the rescue, showing her how to pick the lock on the bathroom door and really lock the neighbors out, with the aid of a heavy steamer trunk.
Brooklyn is a joy to read, and it moves along quickly. Eilis is, surprisingly, not always a sympathetic protagonist. She does occasionally behave cruelly, and is unapologetic about it (rather than thanking her landlady for a nice gesture, she is suspicious of the motive behind it and remains cold, so that she won’t be in the lady’s debt). But if you don’t always agree with her choices, Tóibín gives you enough of a wide window into her thoughts that you always understand them. It is particularly interesting to contrast the people in Ireland, whom he tinges with a sort of inborn hopelessness, with the people Eilis meets in America, who are some of them Irish, some Italian, and some simply American: open to possibilities and bright with energy. It’s no accident that the Italian family she grows close to is planning to buy property on Long Island and set up a homebuilding business, while all her friends in Ireland see no further than continuing the family business, doing what their parents have done and their parents before them. And that, ultimately, is the choice Eilis must make.