Skip to main content




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 ([email protected]) on December 23, 2010

by Colm Tóibín

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