Review

Brooklyn

by Colm Tóibín

Although it’s a relatively slight work when compared to
its prize-winning predecessor, THE MASTER, a brilliant treatment of
the life of Henry James, the latest novel from Ireland’s Colm
Tóibín is a warm and finely observed tale of one young
immigrant woman’s coming of age in the America of the early
1950s.

At the suggestion of Father Flood, a New York parish priest,
Eilis Lacey, a young woman from the village of Enniscorthy, County
Wexford (Tóibín’s own hometown), leaves her widowed
mother and older sister in 1951 to make a new home in Brooklyn. It
seems she has little to lose, abandoning a menial job in a grocery
store and facing the chance to emerge from the shadow of her poised
and accomplished sibling.

Tóibín recounts in gruesome detail Eilis’s
wretched weeklong ocean passage in a cramped third-class cabin. She
takes up residence in a Brooklyn rooming house inhabited by five
other young women and owned by the officious and opinionated Mrs.
Kehoe, herself an immigrant from County Wexford. At first Eilis is
overwhelmed by the novelty of her surroundings, in which
“each moment appeared to bring some new sight or sensation or
piece of information,” but her fascination with the new world
soon is overtaken by intense homesickness, especially for her older
sister Rose: “She was nobody here. It was not just that she
had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in
this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor.
Nothing meant anything.” In a gorgeous passage,
Tóibín describes how Eilis is both sustained and tortured
by thoughts of her Irish home, of an “early evening in
October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy,
the Slaney River glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning
from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and
gently.”

Several months after she is settled into her job as a clerk at
Bartocci’s Department Store on Fulton Street, Eilis enrolls
in night classes at Brooklyn College, where she studies assiduously
for her bookkeeping certificate, her dream eventually to attain an
office job. At a parish hall dance she meets Tony Fiorello, a
handsome, earnest young plumber from Bensonhurst, and the mutual
attraction, if not instantaneous, soon becomes obvious. Before long
their relationship settles into a comfortable pattern: Tony
“collects” her from her night class every Thursday;
they attend the parish hall dance on Friday and take in a movie on
Saturday night. Tony’s feelings for Eilis grow more quickly
than do hers for him, but Tóibín writes movingly and
perceptively of the young woman’s deepening affection for her
uncomplicated companion.

In the midst of this intimate tale, Tóibín subtly
alludes to the changes coming to the world of post-war America: the
first “colored” customers at Bartocci’s, the
arrival of television, and the early days of Long Island’s
suburban boom, as Tony and his brothers dream of building family
homes, and eventually a construction business, there. Eilis’s
comfort in this strange new world grows alongside her attachment to
Tony, as he takes her to the crowded beach at Coney Island and to
Ebbets Field, where he vainly tries to rouse her interest in the
game of baseball that’s incomprehensible to her.

When a family tragedy causes Eilis to return to Enniscorthy, she
encounters Jim Farrell, a young pub owner for whom she develops
feelings that rival the ones she holds for Tony, and she must
decide whether she’ll return to her roots in the sleepy
village or to the new life she has carved out for herself in
America. “It made her feel strangely as though she were two
people,” Eilis thinks as she reflects on the choice she
inevitably must make, “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.” Tóibín
resolves that conflict with the same subtlety and mastery that
characterizes the rest of the novel.

In his quietly perceptive prose, Colm Tóibín
effortlessly captures the duality that lies at the heart of Eilis
Lacey’s story. BROOKLYN unassumingly offers both a classic
saga of an immigrant coming to terms with life in her new land and
an equally appealing story of one young woman’s grasp of a
hard-won maturity.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on December 23, 2010

Brooklyn
by Colm Tóibín

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 262 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1439138311
  • ISBN-13: 9781439138311