'Brooklyn' by Colm Toibin
Share with others:
Colm Toibin has done something so quietly beautiful in his newest novel that it may, at first, confuse readers.
Instead of structuring it around a sensational event or a strong dramatic premise, Toibin narrows his focus to examine the life of an unremarkable woman whose struggles concern the personal and the everyday. It may take readers a few chapters to realize that the novel's simplicity is its own brilliance.
The story begins in the village of Enniscorthy, Ireland, in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey lives with her widowed mother and her beautiful, unmarried sister, Rose, whose office job, along with the money her brothers send from England, supports the family.
Eilis is shy, socially awkward and a bit naive woman who has come to accept boorish behavior because she believes it's the norm.
Leaving Ireland for financial gain is nothing new for the Irish. Plenty of people in Eilis' community have left for this reason but she's surprised when the local parish priest finds her a job and a place to live in Brooklyn.
Until this moment, Eilis has been an observant wall flower; the opportunity to move beyond what she knows is intimidating and confusing. Her life is full of these pauses and Toibin clarifies them with such aching poignancy that one can't help but relate to her feelings.
Dreadfully seasick, her Atlantic crossing is unpleasant. Her roommate is a world-weary traveler who coaches her about the immigration officials at Ellis Island: "Don't look too innocent. Try not to look so frightened."
But that's who she is and that's how she approaches her new life in Brooklyn. She's polite, honest but limited. She hasn't the experience or the ego to imagine herself beyond her own situation.
There are dramatic moments in the novel that feel like they might take over Eilis' life; the department store where she works has allowed "colored women" to shop.
When she becomes ill, the other women at her boarding house consider the possibility that she's sick because she's been in contact with African-Americans.
She meets an Italian man who tries to pass himself off as Irish. The racism between the two cultures feels as though it might erupt into a "Romeo and Juliet" story, but Toibin keeps the narrative focus on Eilis.
This narrow concentration might suffocate another novelist's work but he's a generous and gifted writer. In the character of Eilis, Toibin has created someone worth following
His previous novel, "The Master," highlighted the fictional struggles of American writer Henry James. In "Brooklyn," he moves away from the spotlight of genius and success to focus on someone much more ordinary.
Eilis' concerns reflect perfectly the kind of story Toibin wants to tell. He has established one of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature.
In the age where all anyone seems to care about is redemption as the ultimate success story, it's refreshing to read a novel that celebrates the quiet life of a woman who tries to live honestly and honorably. And it is this kind of story that may present the most amazing sort of mastery.
First Published July 5, 2009 12:00 am