Colm Toibin is one of those authors that I’ve been meaning to try for a while. My husband really enjoys his books and we must have half a dozen of them sitting on our shelves. When Carrie from Books And Movies said that she was going to host a read-a-long of this novel of his, Brooklyn, for September, I signed up. I only needed one more novel to read to complete Carrie’s Irish Challenge of 2011 and this was a perfect way to finish that, plus try a new author.
Eilis Lacey is a young Dublin woman in a post WW2-Ireland living with her mother and elegant older sister Rose. Eilis doesn’t really have much going for her in Ireland, she’s had trouble getting a job and now works one day a week in a sort of general store. She’s good with figures and would like something in bookkeeping but there’s just no opportunities for her where she is.
With the help of her sister Rose, Eilis is introduced to a local priest who offers to sponsor her over in Brooklyn, New York, to help her get a job and live in a community thriving with Irish ex-pats where there are plenty of opportunities for someone like Eilis. She agrees and is soon heading across the Atlantic on a ship to America. It’s a treacherous crossing and although Eilis is found a room in a boarding house and a job in a local department store, she soon struggles with extreme homesickness. Part of her job is to look cheerful and happy and encourage people to spend and they can’t have her looking miserable. Eventually Eilis comes to get past her homesickness when the offer to study a bookkeeping course comes up – she throws herself into her studies so that she can graduate with good marks and move off the shop floor and into an area that she wants to.
At a local Irish dance she meets Tony, who is not even Irish but Italian, but who freely admits to liking Irish girls, in particular, Eilis. She has never really had a boyfriend before and seems reluctant but Tony’s patience wins her over and eventually she is folded into his large and boisterous Italian family, going to the beach in summer and to baseball games.
Eilis’ comfortable world of study, work and Tony is disturbed when she receives devastating news from home. Before long she is preparing to return to Ireland, a different person than the one that left it 2 years ago. She finds that locals are impressed by her New York polish and clothes – people who barely looked at her when she was living there are eager to spend time with her. Eilis finds herself torn between her Ireland life and her New York life.
I finished this book a bit disappointed. I was really looking forward to my first Toibin reading and I was a little surprised to find that it didn’t draw me in as I expected. I found the first section we read for the read-a-long a bit bland but then it picked up when Eilis was on her way to America. The writing of the crossing in particular was very good and then when Toibin began to touch upon her homesickness, I could really feel it. It was something as simple as a few letters from home that set her off and made her realise just how far away she was from her family and how isolated she was in America. Even though she had people at her new place of work and her boarding house, she never became very close to any of them, or spent much time with them and it wasn’t until the introduction of Tony that she seemed to make a friend. The only person she saw on a regular basis was the priest who was her sponsor, when she attended church or helped out at the Christmas dinner he had for the homeless, or for those who had no where else to go.
I was very taken aback by the ending of the book – I thought that Eilis, back in Ireland, made some choices that seemed very out of character, or out of the character she’d been portrayed to be for the first 3/4 of the book. It actually made me strongly dislike her towards the end, whereas I’d always liked her throughout. However it seemed like when she went back to Ireland she became selfish and self-absorbed and then the book ended abruptly before we learned whether or not she faced any consequences for her actions when she returned to America. The reader was left hanging about a lot of things which didn’t sit well with me.
All in all, this was not a great introduction for me to Toibin. I’m not sure if this style of story is indicative of his work, but I’m not willing to give up yet! I have a few books from him still sitting on the shelf and I’m definitely going to read another one at least to see if it was just this book that wasn’t for me, or if his style just isn’t to my taste.
Book #160 of 2011
This novel completes my participation in the Irish Reading Challenge for 2011! I pledged to read 4 books set in Ireland, featuring Irish characters or written by an Irish author. My books read were:
1. Faithful Place, by Tana French
2. Dance Lessons, by Aine Greaney
3. Striking Poses, by Kate Thompson
4. Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin