Monday, December 07, 2009
Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Tóibín
I have a number of sources for discovering new writers. One fertile source is the Booker Prize, given annually to the best novel of the year. I have come to know many fine authors – Anne Enright, John Banville, and Ian McEwan to name a few. These prize-winning authors have given me many hours of pleasure, but the “also-rans” should not be neglected. One such author frequently short-listed for the prize is Colm Tóibín. Blackwater Lightship became my first experience with this wonderful Irish writer, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University. I have read three of his books, and Brooklyn represents a 180 degree shift from the tone and story-line of his previous works.
Eilis Lacey has just finished vocational school, and she has a knack for figures. She helps out in a small shop in Enniscorthy, Ireland. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister Rose. Unfortunately, she cannot find a permanent job in her town, so when a priest visits the Laceys, Rose tells him about Eilis’ plight. He offers to get her emigration papers for America, with a promise of a job and a room in a respectable boarding house. Eilis seems unsure, but she knows her options are limited, so she decides to take the plunge and leave the Olde Sod for the new world.
“New” is quite an understatement for Eilis. She finds herself on her own for the first time in a strange and wonderful land. She adapts well to her land lady, Mrs. Kehoe, and her roommates, who take her dancing. She makes new friends, and gets along well in her position as a counter girl at a department store. Set in the early 50s, she has all the innocence and sense of peace and happiness of that decade. A short bout of homesickness hardly slows her down at all.
Unlike some of his other work, Tóibín does not delve into the dark underside of life and its difficulties here. Rather, his warm prose weaves a serene tale of life in rural Ireland and Brooklyn, NY. Eilis matures quickly, and develops a relationship with young man she meets at a dance.
Tony is a gentleman in every sense of the word. On page 148 the first negative thing happens to Eilis. While walking Eilis home from her night classes, he spins a tale of American Baseball and his love for a particular team. Tóibín writes, “’You know what I really want ?’ he asked. ‘I want our kids to be Dodger fans.’ He was so pleased and excited at the idea, she thought, that he did not notice her face freezing.” Eilis is shocked at the speed Tony had pushed the relationship. As she does throughout the novel, Eilis turns the situation over and over in her mind, figuring from every angle how she should respond. When she does confront Tony, she does so perfectly. He understands, and he backs off.
The best thing about Tóibín’s novels, however, is what can only be described as lovely prose. Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, leaving a distraught Tony behind. Eilis thinks of him often, but doesn't tell anyone. Tóibín writes, “not telling her mother or her friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother’s daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew” (226).
Don’t mistake this novel for a romance. It is a sensitive and detailed portrait of a young woman coming of age and dealing with many changes in her life. Will she go back to Tony? Or stay with Jim Farrell in Enniscorthy? I won’t tell. You will have to float through this beautiful novel to find out. 5 stars.