Sunday, 12 June 2011

No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009) begins in 1950s Ireland. Twenty year old Eilis Lacey lives with her mother and older sister Rose in a small town in County Wexford. Her brothers have moved to England in the hopes of finding work, while Rose supports the women of the family. Eilis tries to obtain work and is briefly employed in a local shop.

Eilis is a smart girl with an aptitude for bookkeeping. Father Flood, an Irish priest working in America, offers to sponsor Eilis to travel to America for work and study. Initially reluctant, feeling Rose should benefit form the priest’s generosity, Eilis eventually agrees and begins a dreadful voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean. When she arrives in Brooklyn, she is lodged in a boarding house with other young women and a strict landlady, Mrs Kehoe.

Eilis commences work in a department store and studies accounting at night. She reads letters from her sister and mother.  Eilis is desperately homesick and feels guilt that she is so far away and that her sister has sacrificed her own future for her. Eilis saves money to send home and plans to return to Ireland when her studies are complete.

A young Italian-American plumber named Tony comes into her life at a dance. They begin a romance. He takes Eilis to her first baseball game and invites her home for dinner where his family welcomes her. Just as she finally settles in America a family tragedy sends her back to Ireland. Here she is forced to make a choice between her old life back home and her new life in America. This is a first for Eilis who has been quite passive and does not ordinarily make her own decisions.

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a beautifully written coming-of-age story with lovely detail describing each stage of Eilis’ journey. This is a subtle and slow book, as the reader becomes engrossed in Eilis’ story without even realising it. Her inner struggle between home and adventure, responsibility and independence, love and duty, unfold modestly.

While I have both The Master and Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn is the first book by Tóibín I have read. It was such a wonderful novel that I read it in two sittings. Highly recommended.