Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Scribner, 262 pages
It’s the early 1950s in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and quiet, unassuming Eilis Lacey is having difficulties starting her adult life. She lives at home with her mother and sister, and hasn’t been able to find a job. There isn’t much work to be had in Enniscorthy; her three older brothers have had to go to England to find a position, and there isn’t much suitable for a young woman. Her energetic sister Rose has tried to find Eilis a position in the office where she works, but the manager won’t hire her. Rose then invites an American priest over for tea, and he arranges a job and lodging for Eilis in Brooklyn, New York. It’s a grand adventure, but Eilis isn’t convinced that she’s the adventuring type. Still, she goes, and settles into the life arranged for her by others.
Brookyln is the story of Eilis’ coming-of-age. Although her immigration, her employment, and her living situation have already been organized on her behalf, Eilis must navigate the new world all on her own. Her rooming house is an intricate web of social dominance and ever-changing hierarchies, her employer requires diligent service and a constantly upbeat attitude, and the night classes she takes to improve her position are quite demanding. Eilis applies herself to each of these challenges and succeeds admirably, but in the back of her mind, there’s a niggling thought that she did not actively choose this path. When she meets a nice Italian-American who wants to marry her, they make plans to build a life together. Then a death in the family sends her back to Enniscorthy, where she is now considered glamorous and desirable for having lived abroad, and she is offered everything she thought she ever wanted. With a foot in the old world and a foot in the new, it is up to Eilis alone to decide where her future will be.
The novel is written in the third person, but entirely from Eilis’ point of view, allowing her restrained personality to set the tone. It works perfectly. Written with clarity and grace, Brooklyn documents the everyday experiences of immigrants during the 1950s. There are no heroes and no villains in this story, just Irish, Italians, Jews, and African-Americans trying to find their way in a new place and a new time.