Many people have told me how good Brooklyn is, and that I should read it, as the theme of a girl moving to America by herself has many a similarity to my own recent experience. As such, I have kept it on my radar, but it was only when my good friend who hasn’t read a book in a year waxed lyrical about it last week and lent me her copy that I thought I should probably read it asap, as it really does take something truly special to make her sing a book’s praises! I plunged into the pages of Brooklyn during a dull bus trip to Washington D.C., and I was surprised by how drawn in I was. It’s not a spectacularly written, literary novel; there are no striking turns of phrase, no lyrical passages of prose that leave you breathless. However, it is an engaging tale of a young girl who rises above the circumstances of her impoverished childhood in a dingy back street of a nondescript postwar Irish town to seek a new life in the bright lights of Brooklyn, and the twists and turns that greet her on her path to independence. Read straight after The Group, it raised many similar points about choices and disappointments and disillusionments as the teen years merge into the twenties, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Eilis (pronounced AY-lish to those of you not used to Irish names!) Lacey lives with her widowed mother and older sister in 1950’s Ireland, in the bustling village of Enniscorthy, where everyone knows everybody’s business and the same families have lived in the same houses for generations. As cosy and comfortable as Enniscorthy is, there are few opportunities to ‘get on’ in life, and no work for girls like Eilis. Eilis’ brothers have already left for England, where jobs are more widely available, and thirty something spinster Rose largely supports the family through her wages. Eilis is clever, and is studying to be a bookkeeper alongside working in the local grocery shop. Her world is small, but she has friends and family and dances on a Saturday to keep her busy, and the thought of leaving little Enniscorthy never crosses her mind. Rose, however, has other ideas. She arranges for a family friend, Father Flood, who has already emigrated to Brooklyn and has a flourishing parish there, to find Eilis work in America, and give her the chance for a more colourful life. Eilis doesn’t really get a say in the decision; Rose and her mother have already decided for her, and before she gets a moment to catch her breath, she is on the boat to America, set for a new start, miles from anyone and everything she knows.
In Brooklyn, Eilis moves into a boarding house run by the rather difficult Mrs Kehoe, and populated with an assortment of Irish and Italian-American girls. She starts work at a department store on bustling Fulton Street, and kind Father Flood arranges for her to take evening classes at the local college so that she can complete her accounting exams. Brooklyn, despite being filled with Irish immigrants, is a completely alien environment to Eilis, and she struggles at first with terrible homesickness and culture shock. Her life, split between the shop and college and her dingy bedroom at the boarding house, is not the glamorous, exciting existence America promised to be. It is only when she meets Tony, a charming Italian-American boy, at a dance that colour seems to come into her life, and as she gets on with her classes and gets noticed at work, and more and more opportunities for growth and change come her way, Brooklyn becomes the land of promise Eilis was told it would be, and Ireland seems years away. However, shocking and tragic news from home shake Eilis’ new foundations, and she has to make the decision of whether to go back or stay. Torn between her new and old lives, Eilis will face the difficulty of choosing which life she wants; one of familiarity and ease, or one of challenge and opportunity. Most troubling is that both can bring her happiness, in their own ways, and realizing that there is not one way forward, that life is not black and white, and that she has to take responsibility for her own future, will be the making of her.
Eilis’ experiences in Brooklyn were fascinating to read about. The ethnic tension between immigrant communities and negroes, still segregated, was touched upon, and gave an interesting context to the Brooklyn I know today. I laughed knowingly at the description of Eilis’ struggle to cope with the brutal New York winter compared to the more temperate winters in Western Europe; how well I know those icy winds that make you feel you’ll never be warm again! Most touching for me, though, were the descriptions of Eilis’ feelings of homesickness and guilt at leaving her mother and her sister behind. I could fully appreciate her moments of feeling terribly lonely and miserable, and wondering why on earth she had come so far from home. Missing the sound of people’s voices, missing the feel of my nephews, heavy with sleep, in my arms, missing nights out with my friends, long chats with my mum and sister over a cup of tea – simple things, but painful nonetheless. No matter how exciting pastures new may be, looking back at what you have left behind makes you appreciate things you never bothered to notice before, making you feel guilty that you didn’t make the most of them when they were at your fingertips.
Eilis’ confusion about who she is and what she wants and where she belongs was also very poignant. As my time in New York comes to an end and I must face going ‘home’, to a place that isn’t really home any more, I feel just as she did as she contemplated returning to Ireland. I miss the people I love in England, and I miss London, and I miss being at home in a culture that is unthinkingly a part of my very being, but when I think that the lights of New York won’t be surrounding me anymore, that the wonderful friends I have made here won’t be a subway ride away, that the energy and the passion and the sheer oddity of New Yorkers will no longer be a part of the rhythm of my life, I recoil in terror at the very idea of having to leave all of this behind. Unlike Eilis, I don’t have a choice of where to make my life; I have a year’s visa and after that I have to go back to England, but I know what it feels to like to be torn between two places and to know you could have an equally good life in both, but a type of good life that would be worlds apart from the other. Which to choose? Which way to go? It’s a conundrum indeed.
Brooklyn is not a superb novel; there is much more that I felt Colm Toibin could have done with it, and the simplicity of its prose was not anywhere near as skilful in its sparseness as, say, Richard Yates’. I read no genius in this slim volume, but I did read a lot of heartfelt wisdom, touching portrayals of the sacrifices people make for those they love (reading about Rose’s life will make you cry), and a very realistic depiction of the emigrant’s plight, and for that, as well as the gentle, ordinary character of Eilis, I would recommend it highly.