By Judith Wilson
I read Brooklyn when it was originally published by Viking in 2009; it was the first novel I’d encountered by Irish-born Colm Toibin, and I’ve since devoured The Testament of Mary (2012) and Nora Webster (2014), both critically acclaimed. So it was sheer pleasure to re-read Brooklyn, now enjoying a new lease of life as a film of the book (released November 2015), featuring a faithful, heart-tugging screenplay by Nick Hornby. I adored Toibin’s sixth novel first time around; a second reading didn’t disappoint.
Here is a book that launches as a quietly told tale – employing pared down language, focusing on ordinary lives – but gathers pace and drama to become a tour de force, a sensitive coming-of-age novel as well as a wonderful love story. It’s also strongly character-driven with the irresistible young protagonist Eilis Lacey at its core, and a beautifully observed portrait of twin worlds in the early 1950s, spanning Enniscorthy in South East Ireland all the way to Brooklyn, USA. Brooklyn is a slim read, economically told, but it packs a devastating emotional punch.
The novel opens as young Eilis is living with her widowed mother and older sister, Rose; she’s bright and needs employment, but jobs are thin on the ground, even in England, where her two brothers have gone to work. Only Rose has a settled office position. Eilis soon toils on Sundays at the mealy-mouthed Miss Kelly’s local grocery store, but it’s not long before Rose speaks with Father Flood, a visiting catholic priest, living in New York. Barely without consultation, Eilis finds she’s to start a new life as a shop girl in Bartocci’s, a department store in Brooklyn. She must leave behind her family and close friend Nancy, even the local bachelors at the Rugby Club, including the eligible (but inscrutable) Jim Farrell. Even worse, she endures a disastrous, rough crossing to the US; as the ship docks Georgina, her sassy fellow passenger, fixes her with lipstick and the right dress, so she doesn’t stand out at passport control. Part One ends with Eilis poised to step onto foreign shores and we’re already rooting for her, experiencing her terror at the unknown, so far from home.
We follow her over the next year as she battles homesickness and her new job, takes up book-keeping at evening classes and begins to enjoy life in her newly adopted city, finally falling in love with the adorable blue-eyed Tony, a plumber with Italian parentage. But barely has she done so when Eilis gets an unexpected phone call: there’s been a crisis in Ireland and her mother needs her home. Part Three closes as she’s preparing to sail, leaving Tony and their burgeoning love affair behind.
I can’t fault the way Colm Toibin has characterized Eilis: she’s quietly spoken yet feisty, smart yet vulnerable, a little risqué but also kind. This award-winning author has been highly praised for his skill at writing from a woman’s point of view, and I agree. Yet there’s also a host of other minor characters who sparkle off the page, from her fellow Irish lodgers in the boarding house, realized with a fine-tuned mix of humour, bitchiness and rivalry, to Father Flood, worldly enough to know how to ‘work the system’, and the wily Mrs Kehoe, her Irish landlady. Toibin’s pared down language is restrained yet lyrical throughout, and it’s often what the characters don’t say that creates the most tense scenario. Oh, and he’s brilliant at describing the Fifties fashions in particular; no wonder they are so temptingly realized in the film by costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux.
It won’t give too much away to say key dilemmas await Eilis once she returns to Ireland; Jim Farrell is back in the frame and this time his intentions aren’t so inscrutable. Eilis has choices, none of which can make her entirely happy. Because as well as a love story, Brooklyn is a novel that sets two worlds – the soft, familiar, old-fashioned Ireland, and the brash, bright, forward-looking USA – in sparkling contrast. Where does Eilis truly belong now? Which country should she choose – and which love? I rarely wish for sequels to books that I’ve truly enjoyed. But in the case of Brooklyn, I’ll always wonder what happens next. In Eilis, Colm Toibin has created a character that nestles in your heart – and refuses to leave.
Judith can be found on Twitter as @judithwrites
Read more about the film of Brooklyn and its transition from the page here.
Colm Toibin, Brooklyn (Penguin, 2015). 978-0241972700, 272 pp., paperback.
BUY Brooklyn from the Book Depository.