Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

October 26, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín 2009.

book_club_2Brooklyn 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.

Coibin_Brooklyn_FrenchI 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.

For other reviews, see Max’s here  this one by John Self And this one at the Guardian’s

Next month, our Book Club reads Penguin Lost by Andrey Kurkov and as always, you’re welcome to read it along with us.

  1. October 26, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    My family from both sides came from Brooklyn and were very much all living there in the 1950s. I am the recipient of lots of stories! Thus this book sounds really interesting to me.

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    • October 26, 2013 at 10:09 pm

      I’m not sure you’ll learn anything more in this novel but I thought it gave a good feeling of life among the Irish/Italian community.

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  2. October 26, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    I echo your response–that’s how I felt. Well written but the main story was tepid.

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    • October 26, 2013 at 10:16 pm

      SPOILERS IN THIS COMMENT

      The story went well until she came back to Ireland. The reverse pressure from her mother (ignoring her life in Brooklyn, making her step in her sister’s shoes…) was a good idea. I could understand Eilis was torn between the two countries. The introduction of the second (and Irish) beau was too much. It wasn’t necessary to use two lovers to impersonate the two countries and how torn she is between the two.

      In his review, John Self mentions that some have compared Eilis to Emma Bovary and Tess. I haven’t read this Hardy yet but I sure know Eilis is not like Emma at all. I wonder where they got this idea.

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      • October 26, 2013 at 10:33 pm

        Comparing a book to another is a great way to help a reader to gauge whether or not the novel is going to be a good read, but I’m finding that some of these comparisons are grossly exaggerated.

        I can see the novel’s appeal but I found it boring to be honest. I HAVE read Tess and I don’t see the connection. Tess is one of Hardy’s great heroines.

        I agree–I liked the bits pre-Ireland best too–although I don’t have the strongest memories of this book to be honest.

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        • October 26, 2013 at 10:41 pm

          I think I’ve seen the film version by Polanski but I don’t remember anything.
          For me, Tess is a great heroin like Anna Karenina, Marguerite Gautier, Emma Bovary…

          Eilis is not “enough” to be an Emma or a Tess. She’s more a Jeanne from A Life by Maupassant.

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  3. October 26, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Nice review, Emma. I haven’t read a Colm Tóibín book yet. This looks quite interesting. Eilis seems to be very shy externally and quite strong inside. I liked very much the first passage that you have quoted.

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    • October 26, 2013 at 10:19 pm

      His style is very good, deceptively simple. I think it’s not easy to write with this apparent simplicity.
      You’d probably like this book and I wonder what you’d think about Eilis.

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  4. October 27, 2013 at 4:54 am

    Irish miserabilism – now that’s a term I haven’t heard before!
    Vishy, I think Brooklyn would be a very good place to start with Tóibín, I loved it. *ducking for cover* I thought it was reminiscent of Portrait of a Lady because it’s also about a submissive woman conforming to her society’s expectations until finally she’s had enough and makes genuine choices to suit herself.

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    • October 27, 2013 at 9:02 am

      Spoilers on that comment (again)

      Lisa, I don’t think she makes a choice for herself. Her last decision is again because she can’t face the mess it would be if she chose according to her heart.

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  5. October 27, 2013 at 9:39 am

    I’m always skeptical about books that revolve around immigration and its influence on the characters. I wonder how original and captivating they can still be. Partly because Lebanese literature of the early 20th century (and a good chunk of the contemporary one) was all about immigration and displacement and characters torn between two worlds, but it seems this one is more about the inner workings of Ellis? Have you read Middlesex, Emma? I wonder how Brooklyn compares to it. Personally, I think it’s the only book with immigration as its focal point that really got to me.

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    • October 28, 2013 at 9:58 am

      I can understand that you’re tired of that topic if it’s so common in Libanese literature (do you have recommendations, btw?). I feel the same about books which are set in France during WWII.
      I come from a country which doesn’t have massive emigration in its history, contrary to a lot of European countries. It’s a subject hardly mentioned in French literature. We are a country of immigration though and the immigrants seldom have a voice in our literature. Except from the popular Les Ritals by Cavanna or Le Gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, I don’t remember reading a book about immigrants in France. It struck me again this summer when I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon.

      I haven’t read Middlesex, I should though.

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  6. October 27, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    I have this on my piles as well. I really want to read him but I had an impression that this might not be the best book to start with. I seem to remember Max was not so keen on it.
    Judging from other reviews I’d say you either love this or it leaves you somewhat cold.

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    • October 28, 2013 at 10:02 am

      I think Max liked it a lot, mostly for the style. (And he’s right, he writes very well the quotidian)
      I’m warm about it. In our book club meeting, we all enjoyed it. Two of us found it a bit too romancey as Guy says.

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  7. October 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I love Toibin, but for me he’s very much about the style. I do think you capture the book well, and fairly, Emma.

    The romance is tepid and unoriginal, but I think it has to be to an extent because it is about the quotidian. I’m glad you liked it, even if not perhaps as much as I did. His The Heather Blazing is also very good, and was the first I read by him and so the one that made me a fan.

    I can’t see any link at all between Ellis and Madame Bovary, beyond a shared gender. It makes as much sense to me as comparing Ellis to Ripley from the Alien movies.

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    • October 29, 2013 at 12:21 pm

      The romance is tepid, yes. But aren’t “normal” people’s romances tepid? We expect more in a novel but here, if you think of it, it’s just everyday life.

      I liked it enough to want to read The Heather Blazing. Thanks for the recommendation.

      PS: I’m currently re-reading Madame Bovary, so I was a bit surprised by the comparison.

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  8. October 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Exactly. It’s a normal romance. It’s tepid to us, because it’s not ours. A romance may be quotidian to the world, but it remains important to those involved in it.

    I’ve also read his The South, but preferred The Heather Blazing. It gets into some interesting political issues too.

    I should reread Madame Bovary, perhaps the Lydia Davis translation.

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    • October 29, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      It gives me ideas about Madame Bovary. She expected the exceptional when she should have been content with the quotidian, like all of us.

      Guy and I are reading Madame Bovary along and will post about it on November 1st.

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  9. October 31, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Nice review, Emma! I’ve been hearing about this book for ages and meaning to read it, but I took a sudden dislike to Colm Toibin when I saw him interviewed a while back. I should probably get over it and try this novel. I don’t have to like the author to like the work 🙂

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    • October 31, 2013 at 9:48 pm

      This is why I don’t read interviews of writers. I don’t care if they’re jerks as long as they write well and don’t spread ideas in opposition with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

      You’re in a tough spot there: as a journalist, you’re supposed to think that what is reproduced in the article is faithful and as a writer, you may empathise with the poor Toibin whose words may have been twisted in the said article…

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  10. December 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Oh nice review Emma. I have this on my pile but haven’t managed to read it yet. I’ve only read one of his novels, The master about Henry James, and I was impressed. I did love your comment that you’re glad he “avoided the pitfall of Irish miserabilism”! My husband says I love “misery books”!

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    • December 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm

      I hope you’ll like it. It could have been better, I think.

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      • December 7, 2013 at 12:32 am

        I think my Mum felt the same … She liked it with reservations!

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