Saturday, November 28, 2015

An Irish Girl in America

by Colm Tóibín

"In the silence that lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America." (p 25)

“None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them, because if they had, then they would have had to realize what this would be like for her.”   ― Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

I recently viewed the movie, Brooklyn, based on Colm Toibin's novel.  It is a very fine film with some great performances, particularly by one of my favorite actresses, Julie Walters, who portrays the proprietess of the Brooklyn boardinghouse where the protagonist of the story, young Eilis, lives.   However, since the novel like all good books is so much richer and rewarding than the film, I am sharing my review from a few years ago.
Doors opened and closed, sunlight and shade, yesterdays and tomorrows; these are all motifs that come to mind as I consider the beauty of Colm Toibin's poignant novel, Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the tomorrow when the novel begins and almost becomes the yesterday that is forgotten as Toibin shares the story of Eilis Lacey in his own unsensational way. From the start the importance of her family permeates the book as seen in the simple opening sentence: "Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work." (p 3)

Her sister, Rose, along with her mother are important in Eilis's young life as she experiences the opening and closing of doors. The way Eilis who appears almost stoic at times, yet is full of emotional turmoil inside, handles the major changes in her life is both touching and endearing. I often tell a close friend that I seldom love (or hate) a character in a book, but I grew to love Eilis as her character matured. For this is also an Irish-American bildungsroman with Eilis, encouraged by her sister, growing and learning and maturing into a woman who must face some difficult decisions.
Colm Toibin tells this story through the accumulation of small moments that gradually cohere to form a novel that deals with profound questions of love and life and death. He is at his best when he describes how difficult it is for Eilis to communicate her innermost desires with those closest to her. His abililty to describe the impact of both memories on the moment and the being of the other resonated with my own experience. Meditating on her family that she left in Ireland she muses: "they would never know her now. Maybe, she thought, they had never known her, any of them" (p 73)

The otherness of Eilis that permeates the novel arises not only from the isolation of an Irish girl in Brooklyn, but also from the tensions that develop as she tries to develop her own identity as a woman and face the choices she must make as one. It is in these choices, the lyrical beauty of Toibin's prose, and the impression that you are left with - a feeling that you have shared a part of the life of this young woman from Ireland - that make this a meaningful novel.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

This book sounds appeals to me in a lot of ways.

My family came from Brooklyn and have roots there from the very early twentieth century on. It was and still is such an interesting place. I think that I would likely make a lot of connections in a book like this.

James said...

With your background I can confidently recommend both the book and the movie.

wwhidden said...

Hello James,

I wonder if you've read The Story of the Night, by Mr Toibin? He is one of my favorite writers, but Brooklyn is not my favorite of his books. The Story of the Night is such a touching story. Many books have brought tears to my eyes, but this is one of the very few that had me weeping as I read the last page. I highly recommend it if you haven't yet read it.
I'm glad you have this beautiful blog since we have lost Shelfari. I record my books at Goodreads, but will not join any groups. I find groups take up valuable reading time.

I hope all is well,

James said...

Yes, Story of the Night was the first novel by Tobin that I read. I remember enjoying it, but that was some time ago.