This is my review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.
This deceptively slight novel has remained in my memory for several months. The clarity of Toibin’s writing captures the life of an inexperienced young girl in 1950s Ireland, where life is constrained by lack of opportunity, convention and the stranglehold of the Catholic church. The author shows great empathy in imagining a female perspective.
I was completely convinced by Eilis: her obvious intelligence, frustration at her inability to realise it, yet her ultimate acceptance of constraints – even to the extent of her agreement to emigrate alone to New York to obtain work, a move organised “in her own interests” by her sister Rose, who seems so independent but it equally bound by duty, and the string-pulling local priest.
I agree that the minute detail is at times tedious, say on the voyage out, although I am sure it is very realistic. The scenes in New York did not ring so true for me as those for Ireland – I have no firsthand experience of either, and I was not very convinced or moved by her love affair with Italian Tony and his in some ways too worthily good to be true family. This section of the story showed very clearly how, through force of circumstance, people can be uprooted from their familiar way of life and drift into a very different culture and existence.
What made the book for me was the well-structured ending. After lulling the reader into a false sense of complacency with its measured pace, the story changes gear. In the fast-moving final part, Eilis returns to Ireland as a relatively sophisticated young woman, and catches the eye of a man who did not give her a second glance in the past. We see a spark of real passion for once – however shallow-rooted it may be – and Eilis has to make a hard choice between two ways of life – but then, the tentacles of the old oppressive, controlling culture catch up with her in a final excellent twist – and she has no choice at all!