Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – Book

Colm Tóibín writes about what he knows. He writes about the
village where he was born in Ireland. He writes, in Brooklyn, about the immigrant experience. Eilis Lacey, her sister
Rose, and her Mom live in an all-female household, although there was once a
father and three sons.
Eilis would be happy living her entire life right in this
village which she loves, but her mother’s pension is small and there are few
opportunities in her village for a career or a good marriage. When Father
Flood, who once knew her father, visits his Irish home from America and learns
that Eilis knows how to keep account books, he talks he mother into sending her
to Brooklyn. On the way out of Ireland she visits quickly with the youngest of
her three brothers who all had to move to England to find work.
The author of this book, which was twice short-listed for the
Man Booker Prize, knows how to tell a story. He gently leads us through the
enormity of leaving home alone at such a young age. We are driven forward into
the details of Eilis’s unsought adventure. The Father has strong and
trustworthy connections within his Brooklyn parish, although because of her age
and the times Eilis’s behavior is under constant scrutiny by her landlady, the
other girls who live with her, her employers, and her fellow employees. She
stays on her feet, until she doesn’t.
However the author just as gently portrays her crushing
homesickness. Finally, when Father Flood understands the depths of her despair
he helps her enroll in night school bookkeeping classes so she won’t always
have to work as a retail clerk. Being busier is better. Eilis is also
encouraged to attend the parish dances on Friday nights.
The second half of this novel was more problematic for me
because of the choices that Eilis is required to make. Perhaps the Catholic
Church would help a poor girl find the money to travel again back and forth on
a ship due to a family matter, but it tested the limits of my credulity a bit.
I came from a poor family and, although people were kind, no one handed out
large sums of money and pride would not allow us to take it.
Nevertheless, Eilis is presented with an opportunity, however
complicated, to return to a life in her Irish Village or to return to Brooklyn.
In order to make the choice to stay in Ireland she would have to liberate
herself from every inch of her upbringing, every one of her values, and she
would have to betray church, family, and a person she loves. 
The whole situation struck me as a bit contrived, but, since
this author writes about his home maybe he has an actual family or village
story in mind. Part of the problem may be that although the author tells a good
story he is still a man writing about a young woman and he has the reader
viewing her from the outside. This is not a first person story. We care about
Eilis, but we are not privy to much of her inner life. The ending is growing on
me, but the novel doesn’t really speak to my own life and times (except for the
homesickness; that I have experienced).
By Nancy Brisson

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