Bookshelf – Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín

In 1951, Eilis Lacey, against her wishes, leaves the small Irish town she’d hoped to spend her life in and boards a steamship bound for America.

Once in Brooklyn, she finds the familiar comforts of family replaced by the random cattiness of a rooming-house. Her dream of being a bookkeeper lays idle while she puts in six-day weeks at a department store, work arranged by the parish priest.

As the months go by, she begins to ground herself, only to be wooed by a young man, an Italian-American. Things happen fast until, suddenly, with Eilis facing pressure from her beau, what’s done can’t be undone.

In this sense, Eilis’s story is a universal story. In post-War America, especially in working-class communities fed by immigrants, the roles of men and women were well-scripted – by family, by church, and by social norms. So it is unsurprising that Eilis so willingly allowed these constraints (which bound women much more so than men) to remake her so easily.

Eilis Lacey is an untethered soul; she is adrift on the river of life, her own hand never on the tiller.

The chapters that follow Eilis’s transformation from wide-eyed hick to nascent New Yorker engage the most. Tóibín’s clear, clean writing makes for good storytelling, and I rooted for Eilis to navigate the labyrinth of her new life. Which she mostly does.

Then, as the book rounds the final turn, Eilis finds herself in a complex situation that compels her, in the course of a few pages, to chuck all she’s accomplished in America in exchange for the “sweetness, certainty and innocence” of the old sod.

I felt gob-smacked, ready to so some chucking of my own, namely some of the appreciation I’d gained for “Brooklyn.” I didn’t, though. It’s a matter of choice. I wouldn’t have ended the book as it does, but, that said, I didn’t write it.

So … yes, read “Brooklyn,” especially if you plan to read “Long Island,” Tóibín’s new sequel to the meanderings of Eilis Lacey. “Brooklyn” is enjoyable and insightful, and whether the ending sits right with you will depend on your palate and patience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *