Brooklyn. 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.