Review: Colm Toibin – Brooklyn (A)

Colm Toibin

Eilis is content living in 1950s Ireland and expects to keep on living there for the rest of her life – until her charismatic sister Rose books her on a ship to America. She is sent away in search of better opportunities than home can offer post-war, and sure enough in NY, Eilis works in a shop and is studying bookkeeping. She remains desperately homesick though, until she meets Tony, an Italian golden retriever-esque plumber. But her family suffers
a tragedy, and on her return she is swept up in the life she could have lived back home. Eilis is torn between two promising, parallel versions of a life she will have to choose for herself.

I’ve loved the movie adaptation for years but somehow never thought to check if it was a book – until I heard there was a sequel being released. Brooklyn was super short – I finished it in two evenings – but pretty weighty. I was moved by the compassionate portrayal of so many ordinary people with unimportant lives, for whom the little things that happen are the big things that make up a life. Toibin wove a lot between the lines; even though these characters leave most things unsaid, you can feel the tug of desires and duty, motivations malicious or sacrificial, as an undercurrent to most interactions. Though it was written with a light hand – deft and funny, it felt real and complex.

I also sympathised with Eilis’ actions – some self-sabotage, some in avoidance or confusion. She tended to go along with everyone’s expectations whilst privately ignoring her own reservations until the last minute, then blowing everything up. There was also that warped sense of place in regard to travel: that feeling that you’re growing and changing when you’re travelling and everything seems so vivid and tangible you believe it of yourself, then the ease of returning home and slotting into your old self with the trip becoming like a dream.

I understand not much actually happened in this book, but maybe that’s why I loved it, and could recommend to others who enjoy character rather than plot driven novels. I am very curious to read the sequel now.