Saturday, May 7, 2016

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

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. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.

Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who emigrates to Brooklyn, leaving behind her widowed mother, sister, and brothers. At the start of the book, Eilis' sister secretly orchestrates a job for her in the States, and the book tracks her transition from deep homesickness to eventual assimilation into American culture. It follows Eilis across the Atlantic in steerage on a steamship (lots of seasickness), through her job at a large department store and bookkeeping classes, and into her first American romance.

Toibin's pacing is quick and engaging, and Eilis is a sympathetic wallflower. You care what happens to her, and even when the story lags a little (or gets somewhat predictable) you want to keep reading. Eilis is a keen observer of culture, whether it be small town Ireland or Brooklyn. The burgeoning issue of race runs through the book, both as Eilis sifts through the complex hierarchy of white European immigrants and as her department store starts to welcome African American customers.

Brooklyn tells an immersive story, but the parts that really stuck with me were the pieces that dealt with homesickness. The passage quoted above felt like a very real depiction of life in a new place and all the internal brutalities that come with it. Even more heartbreaking (and true) is Toibin's description of Eilis' return to Ireland two years later:

She had put no thought into what it would be like to come home because she had longed so much for the familiarity of these rooms that she had presumed she would be happy and relieved to step back into them, but, instead, on this first morning, all she could do was count the days before she went back.

Eilis' return to Ireland happens in somewhat of a fog. She isn't fully home, but not quite a visitor. This part of the book had some of the more poignant descriptions, but also some of the pieces that felt the most out of character for Eilis. Toibin definitely has nailed that "you can never go home again" nostalgia, but he also has Eilis struggle with her role as the American returning home in ways that are compelling but often hard to read. She somewhat knowingly takes on a new personality, and watching her trying to reconcile the person she was before she left, the person she has become in Brooklyn, and the person her family and friends expect her to return as is difficult but engaging.

Overall, Brooklyn is a quick, engaging read. I haven't seen the movie yet (maybe I'll update when I do), but the book is definitely worthwhile. If you're in transition or feeling somewhat at sea, especially recommended.


Christopher said...

Didn't read this, but I did see the movie. I couldn't really get into the immigrant story, but I thought the second half of the film, where she returns to Ireland and struggles with whether to return to Brooklyn or not, was much more engaging. Is that true for the book as well?

Chloe Pinkerton said...

I actually found that part the hardest to read (although maybe in a good way). I was frustrated with the choices she made while home and didn't feel like they were particularly in character (that being said, I think part of the point was that "in character" meant something different in NY than it did in Ireland, and something different again when she returned). I liked the NY parts better, but the return was definitely more complex than the rest of the book.