Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Book Club Choice for October

Perhaps you would rather see the film before reading the book? To me, the book will always come first and I don’t mind knowing the story when I go to see the film.  I will still enjoy the film.  Plus the film is usually not a 100% accurate portrayal of the original story, and I prefer the book every time.  Whatever way around you do it – book then film, film then book or just film or book, I would love to hear your thoughts on Brooklyn.  Here are mine, after a short summing up of the story –

Eilis Lacey has lived in the village of Enniscorthy in County Wexford her whole life. She lives with her widowed mother and her older sister Rose. Her sister Rose is the breadwinner for the family, and there are few prospects for girls in Ireland in the 1950s to have a career. Getting married and having a family are usually the way forward. However Rose has other plans for Eilis, and she, her mother and a well-meaning priest, Father Flood work on a plan for Eilis’s life. Eilis soon discovers that a job and a new life in Brooklyn await. She accepts this with equanimity, although we are to discover that the women in this family never tell each other how they are really feeling and this is the tragedy of this story.

Eilis doesn’t want to go to America, but feels she has no choice but to accept the path laid out for her, Tóibín writes; “She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”

In Brooklyn Eilis is given lodgings with a Mrs Kehoe, along with some other female lodgers. She works on the shop floor of a department store called Bartocci’s. Following an initial period of numbness, followed by a severe case of being homesick, once she realizes the reality of her situation, Eilis settles down to life in Brooklyn and begins studying to become a bookkeeper. After a few months she meets an American called Tony at the local Parish dance organized by Father Flood. Love blossoms and it seems she may have found her happy ever after. However, when she is called back to Ireland following a family tragedy, she must make the ultimate choice between love and duty.

I was a fan of  Colm Tóibín before reading this book, but now I would say I am a super fan! The story will definitely go into my list of favourite reads of all time.  Tóibín portrays the dynamics of family life in Ireland in the fifties with such accuracy and subtlety, that I could almost feel myself there. Eilis respects her mother and sister and behaves accordingly. At times I wanted to scream with frustration that she wouldn’t tell them how she was feeling, and yet I understood how and why she couldn’t. Was the choice she made in America a type of revenge? I don’t believe so. I think it was sincerely done with no thought that she wouldn’t return.

Did she make the right choice? I think it was a choice between the head and the heart, and she made the ultimate sacrifice and went with duty and the head. For me she is a heroine for that reason.

What I loved about this book was how the author shows how place plays such a significant part in our lives. We can live in one place and when we are away from it for a while, it seems like a dream. Eilis states that Tony seems; “part of a dream from which she had woken.” Yet she is emotionally aware that if she returned to Brooklyn, then it would be her life in Enniscorthy that would seem like a dream. It is also a clever working of the plot that it is the nasty Miss Kelly who she worked for in Enniscorthy, before departing for Brooklyn, who discovers her secret and forces her decision.

I found it such a poignant book and found myself crying at several points during the story, sometimes without even realizing there were tears sliding down my face. In particular the author’s description of how it feels to be homesick: “All this came to her like a terrible weight and she felt for a second that she was going to cry. It was as though an ache in her chest was trying to force tears down her cheeks despite her enormous effort to keep them back. She did not give in to whatever it was. She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again.”

It reminded me, I suppose, of my own journeys back and forth from Zambia to Ireland as a child and teenager. Thank goodness I never had to face a choice like she did. I don’t think I would have had the strength.

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One thought on “Review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. Book Club Choice for October

  1. I am starting to worry that I have read too many fast paced thrillers recently because it took me a while to adjust to the slow pace of this book as we ambled with Eilies through her mental and geographical journey. That said, I enjoyed the book, and look forward to seeing the film.

    I sensed early on that Eilis was going to be faced with a tough decision to choose between her (the) new world and her old one! Thankfully there were a few surprises along the way (one particularly sad /shocking one Which I certainly wasn’t prepared for! ) to keep it interesting. I loved the change we witness in Eilis as she evolves and discovers herself and establishes her new identity along with her new home. I thought the author did a tremendous job in the portrayal of Irish town life in the fifties which I found frustratingly slow, convoluted, claustrophobic – full of guilt, duty and sacrifice. But probably very true to life at that time.

    As for the decision? Did she make the right choice? In my opinion, morally right but romantically wrong! ( but of course I reserve the right to change my mind when I see who is in the cast!) Bring on the film!

    Liked by 1 person

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