Book Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who emigrates to America. In the 1950s there were few opportunities for employment in Ireland. Eilis’s three brothers have already moved to England. Her sister, Rose, has kept the family afloat since their father died four years ago. Eilis is content to remain in the small town where she was born and raised but Rose wants more for her sister, recognising her intelligence. She approaches a visiting priest from Brooklyn and he agrees to sponsor Eilis and look out for her as needed.

Thus Eilis leaves her mother and sister in the family home to sail across the Atlantic aboard a crowded liner. She will be employed in a department store, all arranged by the priest. At night she takes classes in accountancy and book keeping – as she did in Ireland – hoping that one day she may work in an office rather than on a shop floor. She lives in a boarding house with six other women, including the strict, Irish landlady.

Although homesick, Eilis recognises that she has no choice for now and must make the most of this new life. When the priest decides to organise weekly dances to raise funds for the church, she goes along to support the venture. Here she is noticed by a young Italian man – finally she has events to look forward to.

The crisis in the tale occurs within Eilis’s family back in Ireland. She returns for a visit that she ends up lengthening. Just as she was sent to America without much discussion, now she finds her life being managed for her once again. She must decide what she actually wants – a choice between two very different but equally appealing futures.

Stories that feature a cast of ordinarily decent, consistently hard-working people are a rarity on my bookshelves. The characters conjured here are far from perfect – there is a degree of bitching at the boarding house and racism is rife, as was typical for the time. Nevertheless, Eilis is well supported in all her trials and endeavours. Even the Catholic Church is depicted positively.

The writing is deft and engaging. Difficulties are presented lightly, Eilis’s character and ambitions driving the narrative. Both small town Ireland and the immigrant communities in Brooklyn are evocatively portrayed. Eilis appears comfortable with the narrowness of her existence, mostly conforming to expectations.

An agreeable read albeit one that offered little memorable tension. Likely to appeal to those who enjoy tales of nice things happening to a nice girl.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penguin.

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