Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin

Scribner, 262 pages

ISBN 0771085362

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.

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8 Responses to Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

  1. Alex says:

    I think Toibin is one of our greatest writers and this, for me, was perfection. And yet, readers I very much respect had no time for it, thinking it had nothing to say. Which just goes to show that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time.

    • Naomi says:

      Very true! I heard from some that Eilis’ passivity drove them crazy, but I found it interesting to read an immigrant story from the point of view of someone who wasn’t a firecracker. I think there were alot of people brought to North America by circumstance or by other people’s decisions, and we don’t often get to hear that perspective. This book might not be for everyone, but I certainly thought it was beautiful.

  2. This sounds like a really fascinating read to me, and I’m putting it on my reading list. I doubt I would ever had come across it without your bringing it to my attention. Thank you!

  3. Trish says:

    I’m not familiar with Toibin but this sounds like a beautiful book. As my paternal grandparents were immigrants during this time (though closer to your neck of the woods in Toronto), these stories always fascinate me and I find myself gobbling up any bit of information I can have on what life must have been. If I come across this one during resale I’ll be sure to pick it up!

    • Naomi says:

      Hey – really small world! I’m about an hour west of Toronto! And you’re in Texas, but I forget where. A cousin of mine is a prof at the University of Texas Pan-American, which is apparently somewhere near Mexico. That may be very far from you, though – I know it’s a big state.

      Where did your grandparents first come from?

      Glad you liked the review! I thought it was a great book!

  4. HI Naomi, I just wanted to tell you that I have nominated you for the Kreativ Blogger Award. (If you don’t feel like participating, that’s okay.)

  5. Naomi says:

    Thanks so much for nominating my brand new blog! I’m touched! Is there anything I need to do?

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