Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín 2009.
Brooklyn is our Book Club choice for October. Eilis is in her early twenties, lives in Enniscorthy in Ireland with her mother and her sister Rose. We are in the 1950s, jobs are scarce in her town, her two brothers have already gone to England to work. While Rose is outgoing and self-confident, Eilis is shy and reserved. She doesn’t stand up for herself and lets other people decide for her what is best for her future. This allows Miss Kelly to hire her as a shop assistant when Eilis is qualified as a bookkeeper. This is also why Rose, her mother and Father Flood manage to ship her to Brooklyn. Father Flood is an American-Irish priest who immigrated to Brooklyn. He finds Eilis a job at Bertocci’s, a shop that sells woman’s clothes and lodgings at Mrs Keroe’s. The plans are made, Eilis has to go.
Brooklyn relates Eilis’ story, her life in Enniscorthy, her departure from Ireland and her arrival in Brooklyn and her new start in the USA. I enjoyed the descriptions of her first year in the USA. She had to adjust to a new life, a new town, a new job, a new home, a new climate. She felt homesick in the beginning and Father Flood helped her get into night classes for bookkeeping.
She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there.
I liked reading about the atmosphere in her neighbourhood. Colm Tóibín pictures how the Irish and Italian immigrants bond and are allowed to mix because they have the same religion. They meet in balls and when Eilis starts dating Tony, I enjoyed reading about the outings, the days at the beach and all the social codes around dating at the time. Father Flood takes good care of the new immigrants and Eilis was welcome. He helped her when she felt homesick, Miss Fortini at Bartocci’s showed empathy when Eilis needed some. There was a sense of community and solidarity, as proved by the organisation of Christmases for people whose family was abroad.
As a character, Eilis is a curious mix of strength and weakness. In appearance, she’s pliable but she still tries to do what she wants. She doesn’t see herself very well. She feels plain and average but Tony doesn’t see her that way and the easiness with which she studies bookkeeping and commercial law in the State of New York led me into thinking she’s intelligent. Her intelligence isn’t flamboyant but she has a mind of her own, she’s a good judge of characters and doesn’t derive from her course of business when she has a goal. Her weakness is that she wants to please the people who like or love her. She can’t say no to someone important to her. So she can’t say not to her mother, her sister or Tony.
We see the events through Eilis’s eyes. Colm Tóibín recounts minutely what goes through her mind. We see her fears, her hesitations and her desire to stay in the shadows. She doesn’t like being on stage and she shies away from situations where she could be questioned or singled out or where she could have to justify her actions. It results in her keeping secrets from her relatives and untold secrets are more and more difficult to reveal as time goes by. This tendency puts her in difficult situations. She also tends to look the other way when something unpleasant happens. It’s like she imagines it will disappear if she doesn’t pay attention to it.
The best parts of Brooklyn were the style and the descriptions of Eilis’ feelings as an immigrant. She didn’t leave Ireland because she wanted to. Her mother and sister chose for her and she couldn’t say no, couldn’t find worthy arguments for her to stay. As a consequence, the fear of the unknown isn’t tamed by the excitement of finally doing something she’s dreamt of. She’s terrified to go and see her life take another course than the one she had always imagined:
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, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding, days in which everyone looked at her in the rush of arrangements with light in their eyes, days in which she herself was fizzy with excitement but careful not to think too precisely about what the next few weeks would be like in case she lost her nerve.
I enjoyed the style both easy to read and beautiful in its quiet precision but I have reservations about the love story. I’m usually good public for this but I found it took too much space in the novel when it was not the most original quality of the book. However, I’m grateful that Colm Tóibín avoided the pitfall of Irish miserabilism. Yes life was difficult, yes, lots of people had to find a job abroad but his picture of Enniscorthy also includes happiness and warmth of living at home, where one has their bearings.
Next month, our Book Club reads Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov and as always, you’re welcome to read it along with us.