Fiction – hardcover; Viking; 256 pages; 2009.
As long time readers of this blog will know, I have a soft spot for Irish fiction, so it was no great surprise that Colm Tóibín‘s Brooklyn would be my type of book. But what I did find surprising was just how much I liked it. I devoured it in just two sittings this past weekend.
An Irishwoman abroad
The book opens in poor, provincial 1950s Ireland — Enniscorthy, County Wexford to be precise.
Eilis Lacey, a part-time shop girl, leaves behind her mother and devoted older sister, Rose, to immigrate to Brooklyn, USA, in search of a better life. She lives in an all-girl boarding house, presided over by the matron-like Mrs Kehoe, and spends her days working in a local department store and her evenings studying for a book-keeping qualification at Brooklyn College.
Along the way she makes several friends, meets a boy and finds herself living a relatively contented life, despite the fact that she still misses her family back home.
I’m not sure I can really say anything else without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so I shall keep schutm, suffice to say this is a quietly devastating read, one in which it is completely possible to lose all track of time as you get lost in the world presented here.
A paean to homesickness
Brooklyn is a gentle read, but its gentleness should not be mistaken for shallowness. It might be set in the 1950s but it touches on universal themes that resonate today, and I’ve yet to read anything that so perfectly captures the profound sense of dislocation you feel when you swap one country for another and then return to your homeland for the first time.
In short, Brooklyn is a superb paean to homesickness and the émigré experience. I think I identified with it so strongly because it shows, in an understated but powerful manner, how all emigrants have to make that god-awful decision about whether to stay or go, a decision that paralysed me for years.
When Eilis is confronted with this choice she is tormented because there is no single right answer: whatever she chooses will have both negative and positive repercussions for herself and her loved ones.
Proactive, not passive
And while I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews of this book, fearful that it will put me off reading it, I’m conscious Brooklyn has drawn criticism from some quarters over Eilis’s passive nature, yet I did not see her that way at all. Sure, her move to Brooklyn is organised by others, namely Father Flood and Rose, but she recognises this as an opportunity for which she should be grateful, even if she finds the prospect of leaving all she knows behind a daunting one. She’s proactive enough to get herself educated while in Brooklyn, because she recognises this as another opportunity to better herself in ways which would not be possible “back home”.
The truly lovely thing about Eilis is that she is a good person, and she thereby attracts good people and many acts of kindness come her way, but her good manners and her unwillingness to rock the boat should not be mistaken for passivity.
Brooklyn deserves a wide readership: it’s a powerful story about culture shock and the life-changing decisions we all must make as we grow up and forge our own paths. I rather suspect it’s going to be one of those books that will stay with me a long time…