Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
In cool, clear prose, Colm Toibin tells the story of Ellis Lacey, an Irish girl who immigrates to the United States in the fifties and who becomes a woman there, preventing any real return “home”. This is a woman’s story on the order of one by Barbara Taylor Bradford or Maeve Binchy, a page-turner that delights as well as instructs the reader. Eilis is a hard worker and a good daughter. Left to fend for herself in Brooklyn, she manages to support herself by working in a department store and also to study at nights to become a bookkeeper. She is a kind and civil daughter of provincial Ireland who carries herself with dignity learned from her beloved sister Rose. Her story unfolds at an even pace, as can be seen in this commentary on her anxiety before travelling:
Even though she let these thoughts run as fast as they would, she still stopped when her mind moved towards real fear or dread or, worse, towards the thought that she was going to lose this world for ever, that she would never have an ordinary day again in this ordinary place, that the rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar. Downstairs, once Rose and her mother were there, she talked about practical things and remained bright.
Set in the years following World War II, Eilis’s story is full of poignancy and also has its share of passion. It is not easy to “struggle with the unfamiliar”; Toibin writes with great insight into the mind of a woman torn between two homes, two countries, two ways of life. Eilis left her town because she could not find a job in the depressed Irish economy. Father Flood, a kindly priest from Brooklyn, sponsors her removal to live and work in a neighbourhood “just like Ireland”. Eilis finds herself working in Bartocci’s Department store on Fulton Street: she begins to determine the difference between the Irish and the Italians in Brooklyn. When she meets Tony, a blond Italian who is clever and kind, she is open to his warmth and soon falls in love with him. They follow a simple routine – Coney Island on weekends, a movie, a walk home after classes on a Thursday night, a dance at the church on Friday nights. Tony slowly wins her trust.
Tony comes from a big family. He is patient and charming. Eilis comes to respect him and to lean on him, admiring his family as well as Tony himself. Tony sets out to teach her to understand baseball and so become “an American”:
She simply could not follow the game, could make no sense of how you would score, or what constituted a good hit or a bad one. Nor could she work out which player was which. And it was as slow as Patty and Diana had said it would be. She knew, however, that she should not go to the bathroom because it was possible that the very moment she announced her departure would be the moment no one wanted her miss.
Just as Eilis falls in live with Tony, news comes from Ireland that forces her to return to her mother’s side. In fear of losing her, Tony insists that they marry before she goes home again. Eilis agrees, and they marry quietly and secretly. When she arrives home, she finds her mother has made arrangements for her to meet Jim Farrell, who, after an initial response of dislike, Eilis comes to admire greatly. There is also a part-time job available for her and she would be able to be near her mother if she married Jim. She has told no one that she is already married, and rather oddly, she allows Jim to woo her. At the last moment, she catches herself up because she is threatened with exposure; Eilis then packs and returns to Brooklyn world and Tony.
Toibin writes somewhat dryly of these events. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are the marginal actions: crossing the Atlantic in third class and what it is like to be sick in the corridors of the ship; meeting Tony’s Italian family for the first time; the revolving tenants at Mrs. Kehoe’s rooming house. Toibin creates a strong impression of the Brooklyn neighbourhood and similarly, of the Irish town that Eilis comes from. His close description of the relationship between mother and daughter is masterful. But there is no subplot or deep complication of the straightforward story. We follow Eilis and are puzzled at her behaviour when she returns home and is tempted to take up and Irish way of life again and divorce Tony. This struggle takes place almost subliminally as Eilis “forgets” to write Tony, or allows Jim Farrell to kiss her.
Toibin is much admired for his “gorgeous writing”, as it says on the front flap of the novel, but I find his work somewhat flat and too linear. It’s a fair story and one that keeps the reader engaged, but hardly a magical one. Here is a nice piece from Eilis’s dinner with Tony’s Italian family:
The main course was a flat piece of fried meat covered in a thin coating of batter. When Eilis tasted it, she found that there was cheese and then ham inside the batter. She could not identify the meat. And the batter itself was too crisp and full of flavour that, once more, each time she took a taste, she could not work out what had been used to make it. There were no vegetables or potatoes accompanying it, but as Diana had explained that this was normal for Italians, Eilis was not surprised.
It would have been nice if one could have said the same for the novel. But there is no mystery here, though the forthright telling of Eilis’s story is interesting enough. This is a book for passing time, and for comparing with the women authors who write similar tales. It is a controlled and showy story that will please but not utterly delight.
Colm Toibin is the author of five novels and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize with his The Master and The Blackwater Lightship. He won two awards for The Master. He lives in Dublin and is a visiting professor at Princeton University.