By Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin is an Irish writer I came across in the best of the year lists. And he proved to be a nice little find. Someone I can pick up if I am looking for a quietly fulfilling read.
Brooklyn is a novel about the Irish immigrant experience in 1950’s America. Eilis Lacey is from Enniscorthy (what quaint Irish names!), a little town in Ireland. She works part time in a local store and studies bookkeeping. She lives with her mother and her older sister Rose, who is the bread winner of the family. Ireland is economically stagnant, there are no jobs for the locals and Eilis’ three brothers are working in England because of it. Rose figures that Eilis is better off in America where she will have a chance to utilize her bright mind; and she finds her a passage to America through an Irish priest there.
And so begins Eilis’ journey into America. She is not particularly excited by it – she would rather have stayed in her familiar home with her mother. But she realizes that Rose, her more adventurous sister has made some kind of sacrifice for her – staying behind to look after her mother while her younger sister goes off to make her fortune in the new world.
Eilis is not awed by Brooklyn. Her life there takes on a very mundane existence. In the daytime, she is a saleswoman in a department store, selling nylons. And at night she attends bookkeeping classes in college. She stays as a lodger with other Irish women and you realize how insular an immigrant community could be. The Irish women dislike the Italians and the Jews and the blacks; Irishmen are the only ones worth going out with; and local customs and traditions still have strangeness associated with them. Yet it is a support system in the new land for Eilis. In spite of this support system, Eilis goes through crippling home sickness. Until she finds some kind of love with an Italian man Tony. Tony is kind and loves her deeply. And as she gets closer to him, she cannot but help agree to his offer of marriage.
Then tragedy strikes in Ireland and she goes back. But not before marrying Tony who fears (and rightly so) that she might not be back. Eilis returns to Ireland, smarter and hipper than when she left. She is sucked back happily into her familiar life there, with her old friends and neighbours…and even finds a possible new love.
Eilis is now forced to choose. Which is her home? It is a classic immigrant dilemma and forms the crux of Toibin’s novel. There are loyalties on both sides of the Atlantic and her choice would mean the betrayal of one or the other.
Brooklyn is an intimate story, simply told. There are no big flourishes of language or imagery. Toibin keeps it real and genuine and the unaffectedness of the telling has its own charm. I will be exploring more of Colm Toibin.