For obvious reasons, I had a bit of resistance to overcome in reading this book. When you release a book about immigrants to Brooklyn, NY, which has the name “Brooklyn” in the title, it’s not tremendous fun to find that a hugely successful and critically acclaimed Booker-nominated author has released a novel about immigrants to Brooklyn, simply titled Brooklyn, in the very same month. When you consider that Colm Toibin’s main character, a young Irish girl named Eilis, has a sister named Rose and an Italian boyfriend named Tony, well, you can see why I felt a little queasy and uneasy.
But really, despite surface similarities, Toibin’s Brooklyn couldn’t be more different from my By the Rivers of Brooklyn — and not only because Toibin’s a widely acclaimed literary genius and I’m pretty much nobody. In writing about Newfoundlanders making their home in Brooklyn, I was looking at a pretty broad scope — three generations of one family, focusing on six individuals over eighty years. Scenes and vignettes from each person’s life were woven together to create what I hoped was a very big picture of immigrant life from several different perspectives. By contrast, reading Toibin’s Brooklyn is like looking at a slide under a microscope — a clear, detailed focus on one life and one experience over a relatively short span of time.
Eilis is a young Irish girl who has the opportunity to move to Brooklyn to find work in the 1950s. The novel follows her for the two years after she leaves home. She is, at first, homesick, lonely and disoriented. But as she works in a department store and takes a bookkeeping course at night school, she eventually begins to carve out a place for herself in this new world, even as she navigates the petty politics of her all-Irish, all-female boarding house, and wonders what she really feels for the warm-hearted and enthusiastic Tony. Then a tragedy at home summons her back to Ireland and Eilis is forced to question everything that has happened to her in the past two years and how “real” her new life really is.
I found Eilis a character who was easy to sympathize with but hard to love; she is more of a passive observer than an active participant in her own life, a stance that’s easy enough to understand for a woman of her time and place but one which always frustrates me. Her distant attitude towards two possible love interests, particularly, was annoying but believable. Despite my frustrations with her as a character I found myself very caught up in her story. Every detail of her inner life is rendered in lovely, spare, lucid language, drawing the reader in.
Eilis’ outer world — both that of her hometown in Ireland and her new home in Brooklyn — is depicted with the same loving attention to detail. The writing is simple and flawless. I found this book far more engrossing and beautiful than Toibin’s last Booker-nominated novel, The Master, which I didn’t really enjoy. This is a small and clear-eyed glimpse into one young woman’s life and the difficult choice she is forced to make, which, as all good fiction should do, opens a door from that one specific experience into the broader experience of young women like Eilis who built new lives for themselves in a faraway place.