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Book Review : Brooklyn

Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney

Colm Tóibín's latest novel, Brooklyn, lives on both sides of the Atlantic. Between Enniscorthy, County Wexford and Brooklyn, New York, it tells the story of what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s when there were no jobs, when the women were dependent on a man to sweep them off their feet to get them out of misery and poverty (but the men had to go away to send money home to support the family, unless they were lucky enough to be born into money.) This had a terrible effect on the women, because it turned them into people whose dreams "from which they did not wish to awaken" involved marrying the publican's son. Has anything changed?

In Brooklyn, we are introduced to the exile, a familiar figure, and she is contrasted with those who managed to stay in their place of birth. We meet others later in the book, Irishmen that are "left over" after they have spent their working life away in other countries. They may have been the second or later sons, the ones who did not inherit the farm. You could meet them once in the working class bars in Dublin, large silent countrymen who were just waiting. They were in exile. Never welcomed again in their native place, they were, if anything, more pathetic than their compatriots in Brooklyn because they were just a bus ride away from a life, a life they had missed out on.

Those we compare them with are assured, maybe shallow, and sometimes smug. At the same time, the exiles are despised, because those left behind are so jealous of them. Somehow the families of those who remained found a way to survive in that inhospitable economy. It has certainly cost some of those in the town a lot to stay. Miss Kelly, the woman who gave Eilis a part-time job is a real monster as a result of her struggle to stay. Others appear unscathed.

Eilis is lucky. She can go west and does not have to deal with the hostility she might have to encounter going east. In fact, she is welcomed to Brooklyn as a result of the good priest. (Despite the news of the day, there are such things as "a good priest".

Colm Toibin

Eilis Lacey (pronounced: Eye-leesh) lived the life of the younger sister. Rose, the elder, who was the family breadwinner and forever going off to play golf with her betters, ruled the roost. Eilis---overeducated and underemployed---is turned out to the miserable Miss Kelly, with a Sunday job in the "better" shop in the town. Miss Kelly, who has worked in that shop from the time she could look over the counter, has no qualms about abusing unworthy customers while sucking up to those on the secret roster of preferred customers that existed only in her own fevered brain. “Eilis realised that she could not turn down the offer. It was better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.”

There is a familiarity about Tóibín's characters. Eilis is so very 1950s Irish in her diffidence, her acceptance of her lot, and her tepid hopes. Her widowed mother's fears are like the weather described in Wexford, heavy, wet, and oppressive, and her childlike passivity is an invitation to domination. She is like a kite in the sky as others mold her destiny. Further plans are made for her when the visiting priest suggests that she come to work in Brooklyn. And so Life pounces on Eilis.

It's only on the crossing that Tóibín lets the readers have a little comic relief. Of many sea-crossing and shipboard stories told by traveling relations, this is one of the best. Tóibín flexes his narrative skills and simply entertains. It's nice to see that Eilis is able for a pal like the expansive, worldly Georgina, because she is so much "butter wouldn't melt in her mouth" the rest of the time.

The book is an elegant and straightforward narrative, more a portrait of a real person rather than a fictional character. The emotions are as understated as they are powerful. "…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."

To have had the heroine of this story have a more exciting life would have been the undoing of the entire tale. Eilis carefully started to carve a small niche of happiness for herself…and not alone is he Italian, but he's a plumber to boot! Tóibín caught the tension inherent in this union of supposed opposites extremely well, a good job for a writer who was not in the place at the time. Beyond the tension of that relationship, Tóibín created such a heart-breaking set of choices for Eilis when she went back to Ireland. Oh, what could have been, maybe. Mostly though, Eilis was, and thought, and behaved precisely like so very many Irish girls who somehow found themselves transported to that strange place called Brooklyn. Welcome to America.

To comment on this review or to talk about things Irish, please visit the companion Irish Culture Forum.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Mary Ellen Sweeney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Mary Ellen Sweeney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Bee Smith for details.

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