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This is the first book I have read by Colm Toibin and I recently picked it up at a book fair as the comment on the cover "Winner of the 2009 Costa Novel Award" caught my eye. I try to keep up with some of the award winners if I get the chance and when I read a few Costa award winners previously I discovered some good novels that way. Brooklyn has very promising reviews on the sleeve, such as "unforgettable" from the Spectator, "novel of the year" from the Sunday Times and "the most compelling and moving portrait of a young woman I have read in a long time" from Zoe Heller. This praise and the fact that my own family are Irish immigrants made me take a chance on this book.
The story is about Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman in the 1950s who lives with her mother and sister in a small town where there are no real prospects. Her sister arranges for her to emigrate to America where a job has been lined up for her. We follow her progress in America and then reach a turning point towards the end of the book, where some shocking news means that Eilis has to make a hard decision about her future. I don't want to include too much more about the plot as I think it is better not to already know what is going to happen when you read it.
Colm Toibin has quite a literary reputation and Brooklyn is very well written, but accessible. His description is excellent and I very much enjoyed his characterisation. Some of the characters are vividly brought to life, such as the stuck up Irish shopkeeper Miss Kelly and the landlord Mrs Kehoe in America as well as Eilis' many flatmates. I was interested to find out that Colm Toibin himself grew up in Enniscorthy, the town where the character Eilis and her family come from, so I expect his portrayal of the place and time and probably quite accurate. I did find it all believeable based on what I have heard from older Irish family members.
The historical aspect of this book was interesting and I would have liked a little more information on some topics. I was interested by the sections about racism in America and I would have liked a little more on this.
I found the character Eilis very interesting and was sympathetic to her. I see another reviewer said it was frustrating that we did not get enough insight into how Eilis really felt and thought, but personally I got quite a strong sense of her and quite identified, especially at the end when she comes across as quite weak with regard to her decision and almost seems to be led in another direction without even fighting it or thinking of what she really wants. She came across as very human to me. She is someone whose life was planned out simply and she had very little expectations beyond marriage and an office job in her home town, so it's not surprising that she found it hard to cope when her life suddenly spanned two continents and she had to grow up and think for herself. By the end I was left with the sense that you can never really know whether you are doing the right thing. There are lots of possible lives we could end up with and many of them would be good, decent lives but whatever you do you will always have regrets and "what ifs".
I enjoyed this book and I think it would appeal to all ages. I am going to give it to my grandmother who emigrated from Ireland herself in the late 40s or early 50s.
It is a quick read as the book is short at only approx 250 pages.
Eilis is a young woman living in a small town in Ireland. She lives with her widowed mother and her older sister, Rose, a poised and polished woman who, it seems, has overcome her humble origins and now moves in Enniscorthy's more up market circles. Although she's part trained as a book keeper, Eilis can't find a job; in 1950s Ireland, Eilis is not the only person struggling to find employment. Out of the blue Eilis is approached by a priest who knows of a job in New York; it's only sales work in a department store but there's a chance that Eilis could be considered for a job in the accounts office later on if she does well.
Although she's reluctant to leave her family, Eilis takes up the opportunity and starts a new life in the United States. There she lodges with the fearsome Mrs. Kehoe along with other girls from Ireland and other parts of America. Supported by another priest, a contact of the priest from home, Eilis starts to make a life for herself but it takes her a long time to settle in. Then, just as Eilis begins to feel happier about her new life, she receives sad news from Ireland and is faced with a difficult choice.
There are plenty of books about the experience of the Irish immigrant in the United States so I wasn't convinced that author Colm Toibin could bring anything new to the subject. However, I found "Brooklyn" to be a highly enjoyable and thought provoking read, even if I didn't learn anything new. It's the first Colm Toibin novel I've read and I found it much more "mainstream" and much less "literary" than I'd expected given this author's reputation. However, there is much to recommend it and it is undeniably the work of a gifted writer.
The highlight of this relatively short novel is undoubtedly the expert characterization. For a male writer, Toibin paints wonderful portraits of female characters; mealtimes at Mrs. Kehoe's boarding house are animated affairs full of feminine chatter about clothes and men and Toibin manages to sum up the different personalities of Eilis's fellow lodgers in an economic but colourful way. Eilis's sister, Rose, is an enigmatic character and I couldn't help thinking that there was always something we had yet to learn about her but no revelation ever materialised; nevertheless I thought this character was superbly drawn and I had a strong mental image of this attractive, confident woman holding her own among the wealthy Enniscorthy society types despite her very different background.
The only exception is Eilis; she lets other people make decisions for her, sitting back and always accepting her lot as if she has no choice. I found her a somewhat frustrating character because she comes across at times as lazy, unwilling to think for herself but this of course, is of Toibin's deliberate making and not any flaw in characterization. To have been an immigrant arriving in New York in the 1950s must have been at once an exciting and a daunting experience; this comes across through Eilis's housemates but those characters chose their path while Eilis has simply gone along with what she feels she must do. The adventurer in me wanted Eilis to blossom and relish her new life but the story dictates that Eilis should face the challenges stoically as always.
Toibin does a good job of capturing 1950s New York, seizing on not just the excitement of newly arrived immigrants but also the social change at the time. There's a scene where the department store where Eilis works becomes the first in the city to sell nylons in colours for black women, which is one of the most memorable sections of the story. What I really liked was the way that New York is captured in the behaviours and experiences of the characters rather than in the visual aspects that are familiar to most of us anyway; I especially loved the warm portrayal of the Italian-American family that seemed to me so evocative of the spirit of the era.
For such a simple story this novel packs quite a punch. For the main part the story moves along steadily - some might say ploddingly - but it's the deeply affecting climax that makes "Brooklyn" a worthwhile read. A few chapters from the conclusion it is clear that the novel cannot end happily given the choice that Eilis has to make but it is Toibin's telling of the story that keeps this novel exciting to the very end.
If you can get past the rather ordinary first half of "Brooklyn" you will certainly be rewarded.
Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey; a quiet, obedient and modest young girl, living in a small Irish town in the 1950s. Quietly spirited, she is a heroine who only wants to conform and to make those around her happy, and the story of her emigration to America and the new life that she makes there is a study of independence and youthful desire. Dramatic scenes and violent outbursts are not needed in this simple story of growing up and accepting one's destiny.
Eilis lives in the small town of Enniscorthy in the south east of Ireland. Her brothers have already flown the nest to England to find work as labourers, and Eilis and her mother live together, supported by her able and sophisticated older sister Rose, who has managed to find a steady job in the town. Although they are not completely destitute, life is not easy for them, but even so it is surprise to find out that Rose has made arrangements with a friend of the family for Eilis to travel all the way to America to a department store job in Brooklyn.
Shy and obedient, Eilis puts aside her fears to fulfill the fate that her family have arranged for her, and she eventually and somewhat reluctantly boards the liner that will take her across the Atlantic. The story of her new life in New York; new ideas, new cultures, new friends and new love, forms the basis of the book. Eilis is a calm and outwardly unemotional character who seems to let events wash over her with enormous docility, but when she suddenly meets Tony, an attractive young Italian, she finds herself swept away with the romance of her new life and the opportunities that a relationship with him offers. However, as with all fairytale romances, there is a sting in the tail; an emergency phone call from back home will throw her new life and her grand plans into disarray. Suddenly Eilis finds that life is not as straightforward as she had imagined it to be.
Brooklyn is a traditionally simple story of simple folk. From the realistic portrayal of the harsh life of a 1950s Irish town, to the bustling multicultural mix of New York, it ably demonstrates the lack of hope and the poverty that drove so many Irish inhabitants to travel many hundreds of miles in search of a better life. The everyday life of the Irish town is told in beautiful detail; the grumpy old lady who runs the local shop with a rod of iron; the local dances where the young people gather to size each other up - all of this is both atmospheric and fascinating, but the reader sometimes cries out for drama and passion to break up the quiet rural life. The character of Eilis is to a large extent the cause of this. Her feelings and character always seem to be submerged - we are never given an insight into her real emotion or needs and have to draw our own conclusions about the things that she is really feeling.
As Eilis moves to Brooklyn the beautifully detailed descriptions continue, from the nauseous boat trip to the seedy Irish boarding house, to the subtle racism of the department store- everything is minutely and evocatively described. It is however very difficult to engage with a character who never reveals her needs or true fears to the reader, and at first I found this very difficult to understand. It was only as I progressed through the book that I began to understand the subtle talent that Colm Toibin applies to Eilis. By making her a blank canvas, Toibin encourages the reader to question, to imagine and to feel passionately about her future. Eilis' need to do the right thing and not to let her family down hide her true feelings, her possibly passionate nature could be hidden away somewhere, but we are never allowed to glimpse it, and thus each new person who reads the book can and must put their own interpretation into her actions.
Looking back at this novel, I feel that I was simultaneously moved and irritated. The character of Eilis is a frustrating one; we never get an insight into her real thoughts and dilemmas. Although the book is narrated in the third person, the events are seen entirely from Eilis' perspective, but at no stage does the reader get an insight into the reasons behind her decisions and actions. However the weight of responsibility that comes from cultural history, family and poverty are made startlingly clear. Toibin is trying to get his readers to consider the issues of freedom and duty; his heroine is not a headstrong emotional being who thinks only of her own wellbeing - she considers all of the implications of her actions with enormous care and tries not to let selfish thoughts come into her decisions. In this way she makes a prison for herself and almost sublimates her own personality as she bows to the wishes of others.
Brooklyn is not a novel that I will easily forget. The realism of life on both sides of the Atlantic and the honesty with which an ordinary life is portrayed make it easy to put myself in that same position, and wonder if I could have been so self sacrificing and compliant in the same situation.
Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in 1955, and the sense of history and belonging that shines through in this novel comes from his background. He is the author of five other novels and a collection of stories and the Guardian has described him as "one of the most highly regarded Irish writers of his generation".
Brooklyn was longlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize and awarded the 2009 Costa Novel Award.
It was published by Penguin Books in 2010 and has 251 pages.
I have just finished the book Brooklyn by Colm Toibin for my book club and really enjoyed it. It was published in 2009 and won the 2009 Costa Novel Award and is described as, "Magnificent" by the Sunday Telegraph, "Unforgettable," by the Spectator and the, "Novel of the Year" by the Sunday Times. It was also longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker prize
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young girl growing up in 1950's Ireland. She knows exactly where her life is headed, get a job in the village, marry a nice village boy and then that is pretty much it, until her older sister arranges for her to move to Brooklyn, USA. Her whole life then changes in a instant and everything is new and scary and life as she knows it will never be the same again. I found it wonderful to read about her journey and how so has a brand new start at life. Its like her whole slate is clean and she can be whatever she wants to be. At first she is very naive and is not really wise to the world but as the book goes on you she her gaining confidence in her abilities and it's nice to see her grow in this way.
I love the descriptive nature of this book. Toibin has a wonderful way of writing in that he makes you feel like you really could have been there. He describes Eilis's first crossing of the Atlantic on the boat so perfectly that you are there throwing up with her and feeling her travel sickness every step of the way. You can also feel her pure terror sometimes at the thought of being all alone in a brand new country with no friends or no family to speak of and how she overcomes this.
There is a lovely innocence running all the way through this book, from Eilis meeting a man and their courtship to her relationships with her mother, friends, colleagues, priest and housekeeper. Of course, this is to be expected from life in the 1950's but its lovely to read about people with manners and values. Of course she is a good Irish girl and so the priest who arranged for her to come to American, Father Flood is a big part of her life and features a lot in the book.
There are a lot of great characters in this book. Eilis moves into a boarding house when she arrives in Brooklyn and I like the dynamic between her and the housekeeper and also the other girls in her house. She also has a job working in a shop and its great to read about what they expected from their employees in the 1950's and how black customers first being allowed into the store caused such a commotion! I would say though the only thing I didn't really like about this book was the title. I know that's a funny thing not to like but for me, even though Eilis has moved to Brooklyn I didn't think the title fit at all with the book as there was not much written about the city itself and I think this could have been better named but thats just my opinion.
After Eilis has been in America for a while and is finally getting used to it and actually starting to enjoy it, tragedy hits at home and Eilis returns for a while. There she finds she is torn between duty to her family back home and her new life in America. What will she choose in the end and will it be a choice for her or what she thinks she should do.
The book was not very long and easy to read. It has 252 pages and is available from Penguin books for £7.99
The author Colm Toibin was born in Ireland in 1955 and so I assume bring a lot of personal knowledge into the book. He has written five other novels.
'Brooklyn' by Colm Toibin is available in paperback for £7.99. I got mine in Waterstone's on their lovely little 3 for 2 offer and some loyalty points on top. Excellent.
'Brooklyn' begins in 1950's Ireland and follows the life of Eilis Lacey. Eilis is struggling to find work in her provincial town and accepts work at her local store despite having some skills in accounting. Opportunities are slim and Eilis is a stark contrast to her older sister Rose who appears to be successful, happy, and popular and generally a fantastic person. The sisters live with their mother in their family home. The story goes on to follow Eilis as she is offered the opportunity to emigrate to New York, the reader stays with Eilis as she embarks on her journey, forges a new life for herself and inevitably matures into an independent young woman.
I didn't particularly enjoy this book but at the same time I did not dislike it. It is very well written and the portrayal of the characters and their way of life is excellent. My problem lies with Eilis herself.
I believe it is intentional that she is not as appealing as Rose, the reason behind this would only become apparent as you read it and I am not about to give a plot spoiler. However, as Eilis is our heroine and central figure I find it difficult to read about her when frankly she is not that interesting. The reader is never given a real insight into how she feels or what she is thinking, instead it seems like we are following a shadow. As said that seems to be intentional, one of the reasons for this I believe is that by giving the reader an initially 'boring' character we will be interested to see how she develops and grows. Well, not quite. Eilis does develop and grow, she does mature and she does find her voice (to a degree). But I personally found that by the time this started to happen I had already become distant from this central character. This was the number one reason I did not particularly enjoy this book.
As stated Eilis appears to be contrasted to Rose; who appears to me to be the only character with any depth. Rose is far more appealing and I found that I wanted to know more about her whenever she cropped up. The other characters are well depicted and their personalities explored. However I also found them to be somewhat two-dimensional. They each do what you would expect them to do and do not deviate. At all. Predictable you may say.
The second rather irksome criticism was the pace. I did not like this at all. I expect a book to pick up its pace to a point where I cannot put it down, or at least I want to know what happens. I left 'Brooklyn' on the bedside table for ten days with only a few pages to read. Not great testament to its appeal. I felt the author spent too long focused on the wrong this. The great dilemma the blurb on the back describes does not come into play until the final quarter of the book by which time I had already lost enthusiasm. It was too rush, like the author had just decided to change direction and threw that last big of plot in. If I'm honest I had lost interest in Eilis long before I finished the book and that is bad.
I realise this reads as a major downer on the book. We it is I guess but I must also say that the author is very skilled. The writing style is very good, it's easy to read and excellently written but the plot lacks so much, as does the character development that I can't recommend this book.
Sorry Mr Toibin.