Evocative, sparse, yet deeply emotional, the books of Colm Toibin have become some of my favourites. He writes beautifully about landscape, about the weight of the past on the present, but most importantly about people and their feelings. He is particularly good at showing family relationships and how they work.
This new book was no disappointment. in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey moves from small-town Ireland to America to work in a department store. In Brooklyn, everything is different: you can even keep the heating on at night, she writes home, with excitement. Her culture shock on arrival is so beautifully written, you feel every moment of her disorientation and terrible homesickness.
But then just as she seems finally to be settling in America, she suddenly must return home, and the gap between her two lives is revealed. Anyone who has ever had an intense experience abroad, then returned home thinking 'it seems like a dream now' must identify with Eilis. It's so delicately done, but with enormous power.
I would love to know what others thought of the ending, as that was my only reservation, but I will not discuss it here as I hate plot spoilers. Please do read this book, it's quiet, old-fashioned and brilliant.
on 27 March 2013
Eilis Lacey is a young woman growing up in small town Ireland in the 1950s. After the death of her father, she lives with her mother and older sister and is treated as the baby of the family, living in the shadow of her more confident sister. They're not desperate but money is tight - Eilis has no job in a stagnant economy. When an opportunity presents itself for Eilis to move to Brooklyn, her mother and sister quickly decide she should take it.
The novel charts her uncomfortable journey there, her arrival in a strange and busy land and subsequent homesickness. We are shown a curious mix of the familiar (a boarding house full of fellow Irish emigrants with old fashioned attitudes) and the unfamiliar (different races, Italians, exotic fashions, liberal attitudes and extreme weather), creating the image that although thousands of miles from home, some things are constant and the world is a curiously small place - a theme which becomes relevant later in the book.
In time, Eilis thrives in Brooklyn - quickly building a good reputation at work, enrolling in college, passing exams with flying colours and getting a boyfriend. Finally allowed freedom, she begins to gain confidence and independence, and we see her personality develop.
After 18 months in Brooklyn, a tragedy sends her back to Ireland - a place which now seems a bit alien. Although her family and friends see a change in her, her independence is not yet fully fledged and it starts to be eroded - once again she appears to lose control of her own destiny. Her time in Brooklyn begins to feel like a strange dream that she can't share with anyone. When the time comes for her to decide which world to choose, she procrastinates and is ultimately forced in her decision by a turn of events outside her control.
I loved this book from start to finish. It's a beautiful portrait of a very real character in two very real environments, sensitively told and with themes that most readers can relate to. Anyone who has travelled abroad, lived overseas, or even returned home from university for the first time will be able to relate to the idea of experiencing something personal which their friends cannot share. The novel is not fast paced but doesn't linger on episodes unnecessarily - the reader is given the world as Eilis sees it and allowed to draw their own opinions without endless passages of narrative explanation. It is a book which comes gently to the boil - beautifully told by a masterful writer.
I've read some of the reviews on here and certain criticisms come up frequently. Firstly, there's criticism that this is an overly simple book with a basic structure - a bit of a lazy and unimaginative novel from an author whose reputation is safe. Similar things are said about "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan and "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes - both of which I also loved. Yes, it is a simple book with a simple plot and simple structure, but for me its beauty is in its simplicity, the credibility of its characters, the way it portrays complex emotions, the locations and era it captures and the themes it effortlessly introduces. All without the need to throw in unnecessary complexity and flourishes.
The second criticism is about the character of Eilis. It always bugs me when someone gives a book a bad review because they don't "like" a character. I agree that Eilis is often frustrating - no more so than in the final 50 pages when I wanted to shout at her or throw the book across the room - but the reason she's so frustrating is because she's so believable. To like or dislike a character, it means the author has created them strongly enough to drive an emotional response from the reader, and that can only be a positive comment. Eilis is naïve, flawed and far too inclined to take the path of least resistance - but she's always consistent, credible and real, and like all great characters I will miss her story now I have finished it.
In summary, I think this book deserves the awards it has won - it's beautifully written, simple writing at its best, and it will stay with me long after I've finished it.
on 13 May 2009
This book came to me highly recommended by a couple of people, so I was looking forward to reading it to see what all the fuss was about and I had not read anything by Colm Toibin before either so I was doubly curious.
I was not exactly disappointed by the book, indeed I enjoyed reading it very much, but I would say I was underwhelmed by it.
It is quite a simple and straight forward story about the experiences of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland in the 1950's to Brooklyn in New York. It is an experience shared by thousands, if not millions of Irish people over the years so there is a lot to relate to here for many people, including myself, especially for those from the generation of the main character Eilis. The story likewise is quite simply told, it is not showily overwritten but is instead rather understated and for me this was the major plus point of the book. I would imagine it captures very well and nostalgically the atmosphere of that time for people of a certain age, women especially. Toibin is quite skilled at drawing female characters, especially the girls that Eilis shares a boarding house with in Brooklyn, and when Eilis returns to Ireland after being in Brooklyn for a couple of years he captures very well the conflicting feelings inside of her at being home after being away, something many an emmigrant can sympathise with.
That said I do have to say this wasn't quite the 'outstanding' novel I was expecting. Very competent and controlled, yes, but it didn't blow me away like I was lead to believe. I actually found the character of Eilis quite irritating after a while. She seems to go through the whole novel in a very passive way, it's all 'Eilis thought this, but then thought this but then decided to see what happens' and she seems almost swept along by feelings she does not really give much thought to. of course this is most probably Toibin's deliberate characterisation but its hard to care for and respect a character that seems to have no mind of their own. I found myself waiting for something devastating and dramatic to happen that just didn't arrive, even though towards the end it felt like the narrative was winding up to this.
By the time I had finished reading this novel, I almost shrugged my shoulders as if to say 'Is that it?' It seems to me a lot of fuss over nothing that spectacular. An enjoyable, almost light read, but nothing spectacular. Many more people, I think, could write something as good if not a whole lot better based on their actual experiences of emmigration if only they kept it simple like Toibin. And the fact that this book is already being touted as a future Booker nominee can only lead me to speculate it is because it is written by a certain Colm Toibin, who is a well established figure in the literary world, and not on the actual merits of the novel itself.
on 25 August 2009
Brooklyn follows a young woman named Eilis as she travels from her Irish home town to New York in the early 1950s. Almost without asking, her family decides that she should move to America because she is more likely to find a good job there. Eilis struggles to adjust at first, but eventually finds her way and settles down beginning a romance with an Italian-American named Tony. Eilis brushes against social issues such as the Italian neighbourhoods versus the Irish neighbourhoods in NYC, the gradual integration of African Americans into white society, her female supervisor's latent lesbianism and her Jewish night school teacher who escaped the WWII concentration camps. But she never experiences any great conflict with these issues. Toibin manages to do something very special in this humble, quiet novel. There isn't a great deal of action. The language the author uses is engaging but simple. The characters are interesting but not extraordinary. What the author does is immerse you totally in Eilis' daily life and the small but important decisions she makes along the way which lead up to a devastatingly brilliant ending where the protagonist must make a serious heartrending choice. The lead up to this final section is very subtle so it took me by surprise and completely engrossed me.
What Toibin does so well is describe Eilis' relationships with those closest to her. He conveys how deep bonds can exist between family members even if nothing is said. The love and responsibility these characters feel for each other is expressed through small actions like writing each other letters about superficial things or sorting through old clothes together. He approaches scenes filled with a tremendous emotional intensity with a very light touch so that you almost don't realist the importance of what's happening until it's over. This is when Eilis' superficially simple life takes on a magnitude of importance.
`Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clery's in Dublin in the sale'.
Each of the four sections of Colm Tóibín's latest novel, Brooklyn, starts with setting Eilis (pronounced Aylish) in her environment - either in Enniscorthy (Toibin's own home town) or in Brooklyn. Set in the 1950s there is little work available in post war Ireland. Eilis's three brothers have already left for Birmingham and there is little prospect of Eilis following in her sister's footsteps and finding a career in her home town. Rose, her mother and Father Flood from Brooklyn start to plot a new life in Brooklyn for Eilis.
The novel is written from Eilis's point of view. She is very passive - things happen to her and she doesn't always grasp their significance till later. For example, just before she leaves for Brooklyn it strikes her that her leaving will impact her sister's life - `Eilis's going, which Rose had organised so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry'. The important things are not discussed in this family - even when emigrating, though they care for each other. I thought this was very real to the time and place.
It is in the small details of Eilis' life that Tóibín is successful in this novel - the preparation for black women to buy stockings in Bertocci's, the dance in Ireland, the dances in Brooklyn with new boyfriend Tony, the baseball game Tony takes her to and Eilis' wrenching homesickness when she gets letters from home.
I've been a fan of Colm Tóibín's since The South,The Heather Blazing (Bloomsbury Classic) and The Blackwater Lightship. I liked this novel too, finding it an interesting exploration of the possibility of two different lives in different countries. Tóibín is excellent on how our environment shapes our experience and how when we return to one place the one we've left can seem distant and unreal `...everything about him seemed remote. And not only that but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her'.
The glamour of having been in America in 1950s Ireland is also well drawn. On Eilis' return everything which had seemed difficult two years before now seems straightforward.
I don't think this is his best but it's an atmospheric and memorable novel - ****1/2
on 12 March 2016
I absolutely love this book and give it 5*, which I rarely do. For me, 5* means true excellence. There is a spareness to Tóibín’s writing which includes essential detail and excludes extraneous. I would not wish a single word to be changed or paragraph to be deleted, no passages seem surplus to requirement or confusing, no characters’ names are forgotten. There is no dramatic action, no mystery, no cliffhanger, simply the story of a young Irish girl who goes to Brooklyn and what happens to her there. Yes there is romance, but not in the commercial fiction sense of the term. Romance is just one element of the story.
It is 1950s rural Ireland. It is arranged by her elder sister and a family priest, that Eilish should go to America. It is deemed she has few prospects in Ireland. ‘Brooklyn’ is a wonderful portrayal of 1950s Ireland and America, the attitudes, the social mores, the prejudices.
The drama comes from observing Eilish’s every step, her every thought, wondering what she will do next. The drama is in the small things. She feels so real. I wanted to say, ‘take a risk’ and ‘don’t’ and ‘go for it’. From the first few pages I was reeled in until I could not put the book down.
This is the sort of book which, having finished it, I almost wish I hadn’t read it; only so I can re-read it again as if it is the first time. It is not a new novel, it was published in 2009 and won the Costa Novel Award that year. It is now a film, which I haven’t seen. I’m not sure whether to, worrying that the film will spoil the book.
on 12 December 2015
As with all Colm Toibin's books this is beautifully written. There are no wasted words. The story though seemed thin. Irish girl goes to America, feels homesick, meets nice young man, comes back to Ireland to help in a crisis, goes back to America. All a bit predictable, all a bit 'so what'? The usual stifling bigotry is there, and the desire to break free, but there just did not seem to be enough originality to carry the story.
Will try other unread Toibin novels, but found this one a little disappointing.
on 15 April 2016
I bought this having read a couple of decent reviews. It's ok but that's all. It's a simple tale of not a great deal: Girl goes to America has an ordinary life and goes home again. That's it. I kept expecting something to happen but it didn't. Which, I suppose, makes it a reasonable reflection of most people's lives.
It's ok, it's nicely written and a pleasant enough read and would pass an hour waiting for a train that's late.
on 2 February 2013
There are two striking things about Colm Toibin's BROOKLYN and they are (1) a realistic perspective and (2) the simple pacing in the telling of the story. First, this is not your typical tale of a down trodden immigrant coming to the United States and discovering that it is "the land of opportunity and freedom". This book explores the more representational and pragmatic immigrant experience. These newcomers to U.S. shores are divided into groups of people who shared a common cultural heritage, from their religious beliefs to the food they eat and who, because of their own inbred fears and prejudices, band together to ensure a kind of insular ethnic self-preservation. Irish with Irish, Italians with Italians, Poles with Poles, Jews with Jews, blacks with blacks, etc. is the order of the day. (Surprisingly, not too much removed from what we see today).
BROOKLYN follows the day to day life and experiences of Eilis Lacey, who at the prodding of her sister Rose, comes to America to seek a new life. This is not a life of glitz and glamour, but instead it follows Eilis as she goes to work at a local department store, attends school to learn accounting, interacts with her fellow lodgers at Mrs. Kehoe's all Irish boarding house, and highlights her lack of knowledge about anything occurring outside her small isolated realm. Some readers may find the lack of drama in Eilis's life tedious and uninteresting, but I found Toibin's ability to make the mundane interesting and absorbing a tribute to his ability as a writer.
Some of Eilis's reactions to situations in her life put me very much in mind of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind......and her famous "I'll think about that tomorrow" attitude. Like Scarlett, Eilis is a reticent woman who tends to hold her cards "close to the vest" making it difficult for anyone to really know her.
When a death in the family requires Eilis's return to Ireland where her "American ways" have made her appear more fascinating to and therefore more desirable, she is faced with a choice. It's up to the reader to determine if she has made the right choice...or if, in fact, this decision is truly her final one.
3 ½ stars.
P.S. - This would be a great vehicle for Nicole Kidman if she were just a tad younger.
on 4 September 2015
I really enjoyed this book in parts but did find the passivity of the main character irritating at times. It moved at a gentle and realistic pace. However, as mentioned in previous reviews, I found the ending very abrupt and it left me with a feeling of disappointment at how it finished. I won't be reading anything else by this author for that reason.