There are books that speak with stern precision about the nature of the human heart – great and glittering masterworks. There are those that simply capture the heart – precious little jewels. This book is among the latter.
Brooklyn is a simple story. A village girl travels to a big city far from her home and everything she knows. In the face of all sorts of uncertainties, she gradually adapts, even comes to embrace her new environment. Then a family tragedy forces her home, where she must decide who she really is and where she truly belongs.
Colm Tóibín’s language has a delightfully natural yet formal tone that perfectly reflects his setting in the early 1950s, as it does the traditional attitudes of Ireland, and the Irish in Brooklyn. He portrays his characters with precision and insight, their times and circumstances with honesty and humour.
Eilis Lacey lives in the village of Enniscorthy with her widowed mother and her sister Rose. She has neither her sister’s self-assurance nor her accomplishments, but she has a talent for figures and is clever and efficient, and Father Flood, visiting from America, is surprised that there is no proper work or prospect for her in Ireland. And so he arranges for Eilis to travel to his parish in Brooklyn.
Even the occasionally familiar aspects of her new environment only serve to intensify her longing for home. But she is dutiful, affable and adaptable, and the limits of her experience have burdened her with few expectations or prejudices. She is thus able to absorb the peculiarities of her new life and embrace its wonders. Feeling generally homesick, a stranger and alone, Eilis is always wary of doing something that might be inappropriate or making a remark that might give offence. So she keeps a cheerful smile on her face, keeps her thoughts to herself, and does what is asked of her. But in avoiding bad choices, she comes to lose the sense of having any, even in accepting the affection of an honest and kind young man.
By the time she returns to Ireland, Eilis has been in many ways transformed. She has gained a degree of sophistication that seems to make possible in Enniscorthy the life she went to find in Brooklyn. Yet she has retained the habits of reticence and passivity that allow her to be swept into circumstances she has no skill to control. And this she must at last resolve: does the new Eilis belong in the new world or the old?
Brooklyn is a simple story, told with clarity and compassion. With it, Colm Tóibín has created a work of true value – an entertainment that will engage and charm the reader, be treasured, shared and handed on: a gem.
Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes who has recently, finally, found his home in Hinchinbrooke, Quebec.