Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin

From Committed to a quiet life in little Enniscorthy, Ireland, the industrious young Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an unplanned adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her glamorous, "ready for life" sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the spirit of the journey despite her trepidation--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Colm Tóibín's spare portrayal of this contemplative girl is achingly lovely, and every sentence rings with truth. Readers will find themselves swept across the Atlantic with Eilis to a boarding house in Brooklyn where she painstakingly adapts to a new life, reinventing herself and her surroundings in the letters she writes home. Just as she begins to settle in with the help of a new love, tragedy calls her home to Enniscorthy, and her separate lives suddenly and painfully merge into one. Tóibín's haunted heroine glows on the page, unforgettably and lovingly rendered, and her story reflects the lives of so many others exiled from home.

My Review: This slim novel is written in Toibin's signature spare style - on the surface it may seem like little is going on but the power lies in observations stated in simple sentences. In the first half of the book (approximately 125 pages), we meet Eilis in Co. Wexford and follow her across the Atlantic to 1950's Brooklyn where she lives in a boardinghouse and works in a department store on Fulton St. Eilis also meets Tony, a first generation Brooklynite, and without much enthusiasm begins a relationship with him. At times, I was frustrated by Eilis's lack of passion for Tony - he so obviously cared for her and she seemed indifferent at times. But as the novel progressed, it was clear that her love for Tony, although not wildly passionate, was certainly a slow burn. After a tragedy at home, Eilis returns to Ireland and grapples with the life she left behind including obligations to her mother.

This novel obviously deals with the theme of immigration. Toibin does an excellent job of depicting the life of an immigrant as one caught between two worlds. As Eilis tries to assimilate into life in Brooklyn, she also aches for the familiarity of her home and family in Ireland. In this quote, the Eilis's homesickness is palpable:

"She had been keeping the thought of home out of her mind, letting it come to her only when she wrote or received letters or when she woke from a dream in which her mother or father or Rose . . . appeared. She thought it strange that the mere sensation of savouring the prospect of something could make her think for a while that it must be the prospect of home."
And when she returns to Ireland, she finds she doesn't as easily fit there as she would have hoped:
"She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had expected that it would be easy; she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed that she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back."
As the daughter of immigrants with a grandmother who returned "home" to Scotland twice only to realize as much as she didn't feel settled in NY, she also no longer belonged back home, the loss of belonging and home experienced by immigrants resonates for me. Toibin's spare, bleak style only makes this loss that much more poignant in Brooklyn.

I am a fan of Toibin's work and Brooklyn is no exception - it is moving in a very quiet way and stays with you after you read the last page.

This book meets the criteria for the Ireland Reading Challenge , NYC Challenge,
"place" category of What's In a Name? "Win Win" category of Twenty Ten Challenge



  1. I love this book! My parents grew up in Brooklyn in the 40/50's so this might have helped but it's a beautiful story and one I will read again.

  2. Great review! I keep picking this book up in bookstores and wanting to buy it. I think I will next time. :)

  3. I like this one, but some people seemed to think otherwise. I'm glad that you enjoyed it as well. Great review.

  4. I too can relate to that not feeling at home anywhere feeling from our days in France. I love a good immigrant story.

  5. I agree - this book was very "moving in a quiet way." I love reading about the time period in which this novel was set, and felt a real affinity with all the characters.

    I've not read any of his other work, but I do plan to.

  6. Glad you liked this one. I bought it a few months ago but have yet to crack it open.

  7. I tweeted this excellent review!


    Thanks for linking...

  8. I've been really looking forward to reading this book, and now I can hardly wait. I loved your comment about the immigrant experience including the homesickness as well. My parents immigrated to the U.S. after WWII, and my father got so homesick that our family moved back to England when I was less than a year old, only to return to the U.S. within eighteen months. I had thought our family was unique in this regard, but I'm learning we weren't.

  9. Despite having never lived in Brooklyn, I am drawn to books with Brooklyn in the title. This one is on my list.

  10. I'm hoping to be able to talk my book club into reading this next year.