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Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn

This novel won the 2009 Costa book prize, beating out Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall. While, of course, Wolf Hall had already won the Man Booker prize, there is still no doubt in my mind that the Mantel book is far superior. This is not to knock Tóibín’s novel. It is a fine, tender, well written novel. But somehow, it lacks something. Nothing all that much happens. Indeed, it reminds me of Theodore Dreiser but without the social commentary and without the tragedy, in other words a Victorian novel without the exciting bits.

The story is about Eilis Lacey, a young, intelligent, polite Irish woman living in Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s home town. She has a sister, Rose, who has a job and plays golf and three brothers who live and work in England. She lives with her widowed mother. Though she has bookkeeping skills, she is unable to find a job, till Miss Kelly, who runs the local store, which stays open on Sunday, offers her a job on Sundays only. Eilis takes the job but is concerned about finding other employment. Her private life is not too successful, either, as she goes to dances with her friend but does not get asked to dance. When she gets the offer of a job in Brooklyn, despite some apprehensions, she accepts and sails off for the United States. In the United States, with the support of an Irish priest who has connections back in Enniscorthy, she manages to find accommodation in a boarding house run by an Irish woman and has a job in a department store.

The initial part of the book is about her adaptation to the United States – the weather, homesickness, the racial issues (though these are as much about the Italians and Jews as about the”coloured”), the job and friends. She has one bad bout of homesickness when the first letters arrive from home but soon gets over it. She does well at her job and starts studying bookkeeping to advance in her job. At an Irish dance, she meets Tony who turns out to be Italian (but still Catholic of course) and they start a romance. Tony is keener than her but does not conform (too much) to Italian stereotypes but is kind and considerate. Things are going well till tragedy strikes back home and she is obliged to return to Ireland. The only big surprise is how she handles this issue.

It is a kind, gentle, low-key novel. Tóibín writes well and clearly has considerable sympathy for his characters, particularly but by no means exclusively Eilis. Other readers, I suppose, have been moved. I was not. I liked Eilis but did not feel particularly for her, not least because the idea of exile and personal tragedy were handled in a relatively low-key manner and there was no doubt that she would manage both. In short, there was no major conflict, internal or external. A nice novel, for sure, but not a great one.

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Viking