Colm Tóibín – Brooklyn
…..an intimate portrait of a sad life, built up steadily from simple descriptive sentences, laid down with precision at a controlled pace. Reading Tóibín is like watching an artist paint one small stroke after another until suddenly the finished picture emerges to shattering effect.
(Ruth Scurr TLS April 29 2009)
1950s Ireland. Eilis, like many others of her generation for whom opportunities at home are severely limited, is given the opportunity to emigrate. After a dreadful sea journey, she arrives in New York to a life that slightly exceeds her expectations. There is the opportunity to educate herself; there’s also romance. But just when everything seems to be going right, there’s a death in the family, and Eilis’s loyalties are tested.
Knowing the bare outline of the plot, a reader might be expecting a fictional misery memoir, full of squalor and sleaze. However, this is very much a psychological study: while the small details of life in Enniscorthy (particularly in Miss Kelly’s appalling shop), in Mrs McKeown’s lodging house in New York, in the department store where Eilis is employed and in Italian-American Tony’s home are all precisely drawn, everything is seen through the eyes of this calmly introspective, modest, ordinary girl:
too young to understand the consequences of her reticence, too obedient to bolt at the dock, too humble to imagine that her own life is her own business
(Liesl Schillinger New York Times May 1 2009)
We are struck most forcefully by the pages which describe Eilis’s misgivings before her journey, her homesickness once she has reached the USA and her confusion when she is forced to make a very serious decision at the end of the novel. The whole novel is seen from her point of view:
Eilis’ sensibility is at once the novel’s fulcrum and its flaw. Her dogged perseverance in her attempt to better herself is accompanied by an introversion reflected in the extreme emotional economy of the prose, which withholds revelation just it exults in the banality of the quotidian and the brutality of flesh.
(Aamer Hussein The Independent May 1 2009)
It’s the kind of book you read in a couple of long sittings, identifying closely with Eilis and hoping things will turn out well for her, while enjoying Toibin’s wonderful depiction of New York life.
“Brooklyn” is a modest novel, but it has heft. The portrait Tóibín paints of Brooklyn in the early ’50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed; Eilis encounters discrimination in various forms — against Italians, against blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish — and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Tóibín’s prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are uniformly interesting and believable. As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where it really is, “Brooklyn” has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis’s struggle.
(Jonathan Yardley Washington Post May 24 2009)
Brooklyn won the 2009 Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize