Online Edition: Fall 2009

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 Brooklyn

 Colm Tóibín

 Scribner ($25)

 by Suzann Clemens

Laced with Irish idioms and universal themes, Colm Tóibín’s sixth novel Brooklyn opens in the author’s hometown of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, Ireland. Eilis Lacey, a bookkeeping student living with her widowed mother and older sister, struggles in this postwar coastal town where class structure, economic hardship, and the imposing intimacy of a small community complicates life. With no future prospects to be found, Eilis becomes the next member of her family to leave Ireland (three older brothers have already migrated to England). Through the manipulation of her resourceful older sister and a well-meaning priest, Eilis eventually heads for America.

What freshness can be brought to such a well-examined story as the plight of the Irish emigrant? In this case, familiarity does not sour the reading experience because of the author's masterful rendering of the characters and thematic underpinnings discovered there. See, for example, how intimately Tóibín expresses the transition through loneliness once Eilis reaches Brooklyn:

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.

Obligation also figures heavily in this novel, where family expectations and responsibilities navigate Eilis's leaving and later her return. This presents an aspect of entrapment, a topic often explored by Tóibín; his characters push the boundaries of social expectation when provoked by their own history and that of the place where they find themselves.

Tóibín's strategic use of descriptive detail is worth noting. In his first novel, The South, the damp earth of Catalonia engulfed the reader as the book’s main character saw the mountains for the first time. In Brooklyn, a modulated use of description fully mirrors the perspective of Tóibín's protagonist: what attracts Eilis is provided in detail; what does not is barely noted. Thus manipulated, the reader rides upon the character's perspective and ultimately feels whatever joy or sorrow transpires. With a character so intimately connected, even suspense is achieved when she behaves unpredictably, making her believably human.

The ways that humans find love, relocate, and attempt to change the direction of their lives are but some of the life experiences explored in the fictional work of Colm Tóibín. While his characters grapple with whatever befalls them, the influences of obligation, responsibility, history, and tradition add complexity to their individual efforts to endure. In Brooklyn, all of this supports a narrative deeply felt, providing a reading experience that is both imaginative and engaging.


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