Our second blogger’s book club choice, Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, was one chosen by me. It had been lying unread around the house since Christmas, so I was glad to be able to finally read it with my critical book club eye. I do find that having to write this review makes me pay more attention and read with a more critical eye, and that has enhanced the enjoyment of the past two books for me.
Brooklyn has received mixed reviews from the public – some hailing it as a masterpiece of writing, and others finding something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome about it, finding it flat and boring. I even read a comment from someone who said it was very like a Maeve Binchy novel, and said that there would not have been the fuss created around it, if Binchy had written it. While I see how this commentator could say this in terms of the plot – young innocent 50s girl making her way in the world – but Tóibín’s gentle, thoughtful prose is far removed from Binchy’s style.
The story of Brooklyn concerns a young girl, Eilis Lacey, who lives with her widowed mother and her elder, attractive, lively sister Rose in 50s Ireland. Eilis is smart; she studies bookkeeping and longs for a good clerical post and smarter clothes like Rose’s, but the best on offer is a Sunday job in Miss Kelly’s grocery shop. The character of Miss Kelly and her shop was skilfully executed by Toibin.
Eilis’s escape comes in the form of another job offer: this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Father Flood, back visiting his hometown after emigrating to the United States, sees her potential and encouraged by Rose, promises to find her work and lodgings in Brooklyn. Eilis herself has no desire to quit her home, her friends, her familiar surroundings, assuming she would marry and have her own family in her home town. But she submits to what her mother and sister expect of her, all the while feeling “that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”
Eilis has to learn to live in a new culture and away from the only home she’s ever known. Everything is so strange and new – learning to deal with a new job, night school, her boarding house acquaintances and new love, but slowly she begins to adjust and flourish. The descriptions of Eilis’ homesickness and sense of rupture at the start of her stay in Brooklyn was very powerful and Tóibín knows how to capture this beautifully.
The denouement..well.. it will be interesting to see what my fellow bloggers think of it! I think it may divide opinion. I am not sure myself what I thought of it, except that it is very provocative and left me wanting more. I had that what happens next feeling when I closed the book and started imagining what would’ve happened to Eilis when she returned to Brooklyn, mapping out her life in my imagination, reflecting on how very different her life would have been had she made the other choice. It also made me reflect a little on my own life and the choices I have made, and how choices we make can alter the course of our lives. So for me the full impact of the novel really hit me at the end and those last few lines left a haunting bittersweet memory behind.
While it is not as stunning a novel as his masterpiece, The Master, which was an enthralling read, and my first introduction to Toibin, I enjoyed this book immensely. I loved the measured gentle unhurried pace, the gentle story-telling quality to the writing, the way in which Tóibín evokes time and place and character so skilfully. This quiet little gem of a book still continues to haunt me in a similar way to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which it reminded me of in tone and style and the way in which just one choice or action changes the course of our lives forever.