Review: ‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn book coverI have a habit of starting a new book in the evenings, usually a couple hours before I go to bed. If I make it far enough into the book, I don’t stop reading until it’s finished. I can’t go to sleep until I know how the book concludes. And that’s what happened with Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn.” I started reading it so I wouldn’t have to watch the Packers vs. Bears game. Then next thing I knew, it was just after midnight and I had finished reading it.

In the hard years following World War II, Eilis Lacey is given the chance to travel to America to live in work in a neighborhood “just like Ireland” — Brooklyn. She leaves behind her mother and her sister to work in a department store and take bookkeeping classes at Brooklyn College. She begins to fall in love with Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, but heartbreaking news from Ireland threatens her new life in Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn” is a beautifully written book. I felt as if I were in Enniscorthy, Ireland with Eilis as she wrapped her mind around being the one who had to go to America to find work instead of her sister. There’s a moment early on in the book where Eilis does not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go to America. Sometimes the thoughts came anyway, thinking that someone else could take her place and her suitcase so she could stay in Enniscorthy with her mother and sister.

Even though she let these thoughts run as fast as they would, she still stopped when her mind moved towards real fear or dread or, worse, towards the thought that she was going to lose this world for ever, that she would never have an ordinary day again in this ordinary place, that the rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar. (31)

Sometimes I think about if I were in a similar position, where I had to be the one to immigrate to another country, would I be able to do it? Would I be strong enough to make it? Or would I give up after a few weeks and return home? Eilis’ journey brought those thoughts back to the forefront of my mind. She does have moments of homesickness, which her brother Jack had hinted about when she asked him about moving away from home to Birmingham. She described it as such: “It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again” (73). I’ve lived away from home since I went off to college, and have lived in five states since then. I never really felt homesick, not like Eilis, but this was nearly sixty years ago. The only communication she had with her mother and sister were letters; they weren’t a quick phone call away and going home meant about a week on a ship across the Atlantic. If I were in the same circumstances as Eilis, I, too, would probably suffer from homesickness.

One thing that I was hesitant about during the book was her relationship with Tony, and those hesitations didn’t really arise until she decided to return to Ireland for a month once her exams were over. [Spoilers ahead; you’ve been warned.] Tony, afraid that she wouldn’t return home to Brooklyn because she might stay to care for her mother, asked her to marry him. He told her that no one would have to know, it wouldn’t have to happen in a church and they wouldn’t have to live together — they could decide to get married in a church when she returned. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him asking her to do that. If he did love her and trusted her, I don’t think he would’ve have need to ask her to do that. But she agreed, and went to Ireland telling nobody that she was married. When she was in Ireland, after being convinced to stay an extra week for her friend’s wedding, she had an affair with Jim Farrell. She began to think that perhaps she didn’t love Tony after all, that she should stay in Ireland with Jim instead. She ignored Tony’s letters and kept them in her drawer, telling herself that she would respond to them. In the end, she returns to Brooklyn, breaking it off with Jim by leaving a note for him as she heads out of town. I wonder what would’ve happened if Tony had not asked her to marry him before she left for Ireland. Would she have returned to Brooklyn? Would she have allowed herself to be with Jim?

Tóibín leaves the ending open to the reader — we know she returns to America but that’s all we know. A part of me hopes that there is a sequel, and another part of me doesn’t want there to be a sequel. That way, I won’t be disappointed in how the sequel will turn out. I can create my own ending for Eilis. I told myself not to go see any movies for the rest of the year, but now that I’ve read “Brooklyn,” I’m tempted to go watch the movie. I’ve just got to promise myself that I won’t compare it too closely with the book. Because as we all know, that will only end in heartache and frustration.

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