Colm Tóibín‘s new novel, Brooklyn, is a deceptively simple story of one young woman packed off to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Eilis Lacey is a younger daughter with no firm prospects for either work or marriage in a small town in Ireland during the early 1950s. Her spinster sister and widowed mother arrange a new life in Brooklyn for her through a visiting Irish priest. When she arrives in the strange land, Eilis finds a job, a room at a boarding house, and church duties all waiting for her, but she feels bereft of the generations-old social network that surrounded her at home. Much to her surprise, she makes a place for herself in Brooklyn, and even strikes up a relationship with a well-intentioned Italian man. However, despite the material success, she can’t fully commit to her new life in Brooklyn because her heart is still in Ireland.
When tragedy brings her back home, she discovers her time away has made her appear exotic and interesting to the men of her town, and her American experience makes her more attractive to employers. Of course, along with the good there’s a newfound appreciation for the bad, as she has a new understanding of small-town spitefulness. Finally she has to decide between assuming the role others would choose for her, and the life she could choose for herself.
The most striking thing about Tóibín’s Brooklyn, besides the beautiful prose and atmospheric evocation of both communities, is the terribly unfashionable lack of irony. Despite the hardships and unfamiliarity, the possibilities represented by emigration are painted in a positive light. Eilis may dwell on the differences and mourn her easy friendships and almost unconscious understanding of the least aspects of social life in Ireland, but despite herself she is thrilled by the differences: the amenities of a big city, the mix of nationalities and the opportunity for interesting work. She lives in a boarding house with a group of women representing the range of accommodations immigrants make to a new culture: stubborn denial through total capitulation. Despite the opportunity to attach herself to this ex-patriot community, Eilis seeks out new experiences and company. Tóibín cleverly underlines that even these seemingly daring choices are easy when in a completely new community. It’s when Eilis goes home, ostensibly just for a month’s holiday, that she must choose whether or not to make her decisions in the full light of her family and her community, or deny her life in Brooklyn like a summer fling, and take her place in the unchanging routine of small town life. The decision is a hard one, and one that most novels about emigration either never broach or telegraph on the first page through an ironic tone and level of condescension to the old. It’s a tribute to Colm Tóibín that his even-handed treatment of both communities allows the reader to feel the full weight of Eilis’ decision.
Author’s website (a little out of date)
Very frank interview with Colm Tóibín at The Manchester Review