Reading Brooklyn, I got the feeling Colm Tóibín wanted to lead us to a lake on a hot day, and ask us to put our feet in. He tells us there is no one around – just you, the water, and a sense of quiet that seems to take over you, the thoughts that were fighting for your attention have all disappeared. His prose had a unique calming effect that remains with me even after the novel ended.
Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl, content with her life in Enniscorthy. She imagines herself growing old here, meeting the same people, walking these streets which have always been familiar to her, living with her older sister Rose and her mother. She does not think much of herself, but this does not upset her. Rose is the glamorous, charming one, with an impeccable sense of style and a job that supports their family. She is the quiet undemanding one. Opportunities are rare to come by, so she is grateful when she is asked to help out at a store on Sundays, but wishes for something more. Her sister arranges for her to move to New York, a priest from their town helps her secure a job. Eilis accepts this too, though she did not ever imagine leaving Enniscorthy. She agrees because she knows it will make her mother and sister happy. She observes that they are both unnaturally cheerful as her departure closes in on them, they truly believe they are doing the right thing. She is determined to show them she thinks so too.
Eilis travels to New York by sea, the voyage making her sick several times over. Tóibín describes internal and extreme turbulence in simple, unaffected language, as though he were merely reporting incidents in her life, like a narrator removed from the proceedings. But he writes delicately, about feelings and emotions, that when you read his words, you cannot believe someone could say what you were thinking in such an elegant manner, with such little fuss and no words you cannot recognize.
In Brooklyn, Eilis works on a shop floor assisting customers with choosing the right nylon stockings, lives in a respectable boarding house run by an Irish woman, and helps Father Flood with activities in the parish. In time, she starts attending night classes to study accounting, and meets an Italian-American man who likes her more than she would like him to. Eilis coasts along here too, even when her homesickness accosts her. “Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty.” Tóibín reveals to us what she is going through, without making it melodramatic. Nothing is made sensational, be it her boss’s sexual advances towards her, or the intimacy she shares with her boyfriend.
The time period of the novel isn’t harped on, it exists so as to provide a context. The store Eilis works in is one of the first to allow coloured women to shop, Eilis’s fellow boarders remark on the increasing number of Italians and Jews to be found in New York. Eilis doesn’t allow herself to be too assertive about anything, but she possesses a clarity of thought and a willingness to keep working hard.
Rose’s sudden death takes her back to Enniscorthy, where she is now thought of as desirable, bringing with her from America a sophisticated aura. She is given a job that allows her to do book-keeping and she realizes this is what she’s always wanted to do. There is a man who is smitten by her and whose company she enjoys. She ceases to miss the work and fiancé she left behind, she notes that her Brooklyn life feels hazy, as though it were a dream, but once she leaves Enniscorthy, she knows this will be a dream too.
Brooklyn speaks of the immigrant experience with dignity and restraint – the confusion, the feeling that one might not belong anywhere. It is a thoughtful character study, beautifully written.