Brooklyn

brooklynBrooklyn. The title probably conjures up images of urban life, of generations of families of many different ethnicities living together, each in its own enclave. A book with such a title would have to be massive if it were to tell the story of a place with such a rich and diverse culture. But Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a relatively slim volume, only 262 pages, and it tells of only a tiny slice of the borough in the 1950s, the tiny slice seen by Eilis Lacey in the year after she first moves to Brooklyn from her small town in Ireland.

Tóibín’s novel has a lovely old-fashioned feel to it. Eilis herself is an innocent young Catholic girl, generally content to let others plan her life for her. She moves to Brooklyn to take a job in a shop and perhaps to train as a bookkeeper because there are no suitable jobs for her in her hometown on Enniscorthy. Tóibín recounts how she battles her homesickness, falls in love, and learns to make her way on her own. The writing is crisp and clear, and, except for the frank descriptions of sex, feels like it could have been written in Eilis’s own time. In an era when so much literary fiction is focused on experimentation with plotting and point of view, it was refreshing to read nice, straightforward prose. The book also takes an almost romantic view of the immigrant experience, one that you don’t see often today, and it occurred to me as I was reading that I’m not sure an American today could actually write this story without being accused of white-washing our history.

To say this book is old-fashioned and straighforward, however, is not to say that it is simple. The characterizations and the descriptions of small, telling details reveal a complexity beneath the surface. Eilis herself is a wonderful creation, maddening at times in her passivity, but still likable. As readers, we see that much of her passivity has to do with simply not knowing how to deal with other people, and I came to love her in spite of, and maybe even a bit because of, her uncertainty. I imagine, however, that other readers will find her to be a frustrating character to follow.

Although Tóibín writes in the third person point of view, we only see what Eilis sees. We get to know most of the supporting characters through Eilis’s eyes, which means we only really get to know the ones that make an effort to spend time with Eilis. Tony, Eilis’s boyfriend, is probably the character we get to know best because he’s the one Eilis sees and thinks about the most. Others are only seen in glimpses, through small, but sometimes quite telling, conversations. There were a few people who obviously had interesting stories of their own, but Eilis doesn’t take much of an active interest in them, so we don’t learn more than what we can glean from occasional conversations.

The limited perspective also means we only catch glimpses of the massive changes going on in society at the time. We only learn of racial tensions because Eilis’s store starts serving African-American customers when she works there. The Holocaust is barely alluded to, but not outright mentioned, when Eilis learns that one of her professors, a Jew, lost his family “in the War.” Some would consider this a weakness, I suppose, but I think it’s one of the things that makes this book particularly sophisticated. It would be easy enough to write a book about a young woman developing a social conscience because of all the injustice she sees, but how typical is that? Eilis is focused on earning her paycheck, studying for classes, and spending time with Tony. She’s not selfish for not getting involved; she’s ordinary. And she feels authentic, not like a vehicle for the author’s consciousness raising.

In short, I loved this book. I could hardly put it down, and when I got close to the end I was on tenterhooks to see what Eilis would do when faced with a most difficult choice that only she could make. This is a most worthy addition to the Booker long list, and I’m glad I don’t have to make the difficult choice between this book and The Wilderness; at the moment, the edge goes ever so slightly to Tóibín, but only by the very tip of a nose.

See other reviews at dovegreyreader scribbles, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Asylum, Farm Lane Books, The Mookse and the Gripes, Paperback Reader, Compulsive Overreader, Beautiful Screaming Lady, and Savidge Reads.

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16 Responses to Brooklyn

  1. Ann says:

    I read this when it first came out and was bowled over by it. I think you’re absolutely right in what you say about the importance of the point-of view. At that age Eilis would only have been aware of what affected her, to have suggested anything else would have diminished the sense of realism we have. I also think it’s important that she begins to see that that is how she is in the later parts of the book and to accept it and act accordingly.
    What I really loved about the novel was the way in which Toibin creates the locations. We may not see much of Brooklyn, but what we do see we see in great detail. I could have walked those streets and not got lost.

  2. Claire says:

    It is a deceptively simple book and I loved the evocation of the period and the difficulty of leaving home. I really identified with the novel and thought it exceptionally tender.

  3. sagustocox says:

    sounds like a deceptively fascinating read. thanks for the honest and thorough review.

  4. Steph says:

    I’ve been hearing a lot about Colm Tóibín lately, but I’ve never read any of his work. Your review is interesting to juxtapose with Jackie’s from Farm Lane Books, because the two of you tend to hit upon similar things, though had different responses/reactions to the book overall. I think I would have to be in a particular mood for this one, but I’ll keep it in mind!

    P.S. Congrats on your BBAW nominations!

  5. Nymeth says:

    This book (Tóibín in general) had been on my radar for a while, but your review just bumped it up on my priority list. I can’t buy it due to my ban, but maybe I’ll get lucky over at Bookmooch.

  6. Nymeth says:

    I ate the word “actually” :P That was meant to say, “actually, Tóibín in general”

  7. litlove says:

    I really want to read this – just waiting for the paperback to come out in the UK. Thanks for the lovely review!

  8. Jeane says:

    I recently read a book set in Brooklyn during about the same era, so I’d be really curious to read this one as well.

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m already a Toibin fan after reading The Master, so I’m definitely looking forward to this one. It sounds absolutely wonderful!

  10. Amy says:

    I was thrilled to open your blog and see a review of this book. I have looked at it numerous times and consider it and wondered about it numerous times but have yet to purchase it. Being a Brooklynite I knew I would buy it and read it soon. But to see it here and read that you loved it has thrilled me. I plan to pick it up this week.

    Thanks for a wonderful review!
    Amy

  11. Annabel says:

    I much prefer your cover to the UK one!

  12. Teresa says:

    Ann: Yes, the tight focus on Eilis’s perspective made the novel feel so much more real to me because she felt so real.

    Claire: So much about Eilis’s struggles regarding leaving home and maintaining relationships from a distance was particularly moving to me.

    sagustocox: Thanks! I loved that this was an easy read, but has so much going on.

    Steph: Yes, I thought Jackie’s review was interesting, too. We obviously read the same book and observed the same things; we just responded to them differently.

    Nymeth: Toibin was on my radar for a while, and this was a good one to start with. Good luck with getting this on Bookmooch. I think my copy’s going to be a keeper :-)

    litlove: Hope you enjoy this as much as I did when the paperback does come out!

    Jeane: I sometimes go on reading jags where I immerse myself in a particular era. It can be fun to see one place from different points of view. What was the Brooklyn book that you read?

    Dorothy: After reading this, I’ve been wondering about The Master. I’m glad to hear you liked it; maybe I’ll move on to it next. (The Mookse and the Gripes has some great discussion going about how this book also show echoes of Henry James.)

    Amy: Thanks! I’ve never even been to Brooklyn, but I loved this book. I’d be interested to hear a Brooklynite’s take.

    Annabel: I like this cover a little more, too. But most of the time I like the UK covers best :-)

  13. Jeane says:

    It was called Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith. If you’re interested, my review of it is here.

  14. Nicole says:

    I read The Blackwater Lightship by him and I liked it a lot. He has a very easy way with words and his ability to tell a story makes for a good read.

  15. Teresa says:

    Jeane: Thanks! I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but that’s the only one of her books I’ve read. Based on your review, it sounds like I’d enjoy Maggie-Now.

    Nicole: I’ll keep my eyes out for The Blackwater Lightship as well.

  16. Pingback: Book Review: Brooklyn « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

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