I had heard of Colm Tóibín, twice shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize and
author of the critically lauded The Master, but had never read any of his books until I happened
across his latest. Largely, Brooklyn is about the immigrant experience and the difficulties
of returning home, but it is also a novel about one woman's maturation, her
change from a person living in the shadows to one fully experiencing life.
Brooklyn follows the experience of Eilis Lacy, an ordinary Irish girl from the small town of Enniscorthy. Almost without her knowing it, she is packed off to the United States. Her sister Rose, the organizer of the family, seems to understand that Eilis will come to nothing if she sticks around the small town, so she arranges with an Irish-American priest, and resident of Brooklyn, to send her sister to the States. Eilis is used to taking Rose's heed, so she packs her bags and boards the boat.
What she finds when she arrives in Brooklyn is that nothing is the same, not even the bread and butter purporting to be a replica of her Irish favorites. Eilis looks around her modest boarding room and job at the local department store and realizes that she is at home nowhere. Tóibín brilliantly captures the emptiness that all immigrants must feel who are deposited, without tie or bond, into a new place. Eilis digs her heels in and makes the best of it, slowly overcoming her homesickness and meeting Tony, the only person she's ever really been able to talk to. Yet, Ireland is always over her shoulder.
When a tragedy calls her back to her native land, she returns, but not without hesitation. Back in Enniscorthy, she realizes that the shadows have dissipated and the shy girl who stocked cans in the local convenience store is now the town's glamorous darling. Boys who never looked at her twice are now vying for her attention, and she's even offered a real job.
Here, though, Brooklyn is over her shoulder, and she has a great decision to make: does she stay in Ireland and live the life that she dreamed of before moving to Brooklyn, or does she return to Brooklyn, the place that made all her dreams possible?
With deft prose and subtle characterization, Tóibín contemplates whether anyone can ever really return home.
This review is from the June 10, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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