Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

If you decide to read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, pack a steamer trunk because you’re going on a voyage. Several voyages, in fact. You’ll take literal journeys, twice across the Atlantic on steamer ships, and side trips in and around Ireland and Brooklyn, New York. Not long after World War Two, young Eilis Lacey goes to Brooklyn to find a better life than she might have had in small-town Ireland

This novel will take you on figurative journeys, too, as Eilis goes from having decisions made for her to deciding what she wants; as she leaves lifelong friends to forge new friendships; as she falls into a new, unfamiliar culture custom by custom; as she leaves insecurity and heads toward confidence. Brooklyn represents a triple trip—immigration from Ireland to America, another cross-cultural adventure when she dates an Italian boy, and still another when Eilis is chosen to be the first worker to serve black women at the department store where she works.

Quiet, serious Eilis Lacey thinks and feels her way into each new culture, and into womanhood. She tests the waters before she trusts. She distances herself from office, college, dating, and boarding house politics as she observes others and her own reactions. She deliberates about what secrets to reveal to whom, when to speak, when to remain silent. Eilis has no shortage of temptations to return to familiar comforts of her Irish family and life; as each temptation unfolds, she fields it with steady thoughtfulness. In this novel, she travels from gawky and unsure to poised and sophisticated. She navigates the choppy waters of complete upheaval with some angst but mostly admirable composure.

Eilis Lacey is a heroine I cared about. I liked her honesty, her strength, her vulnerability. I also liked Colm Tóibín’s portrayal of the early 1950s, when tradition, courtesy, and respectability reigned—and resulted in Eilis’ finding new family. Customs in Brooklyn’s Irish and Italian neighborhoods, and the role of the Catholic Church, were interesting as well. Back then, television was newfangled, and Eilis’ house mother deemed it a fad that wouldn’t last due to a dearth of programming. Ha! Tóibín’s writing style in this book (I’ve not read anything else by him, so don’t know what style is typical) was plain and simple, which fit Eilis’ character.

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