Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Published 21/02/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I was struck by the parallels between Ireland in the 1950s and life in Eire as it is today. In the novel Eilish Lacey has to leave Enniscorthy to find work in New York and sixty years later many Irish people are again leaving their homes and looking for employment abroad.

In many ways this is a novel of the different journeys made by Eilish. There is the transatlantic crossing made under stormy conditions when she is even locked out of the bathroom and is reduced to vomiting in her cabin. She travels away from her family and her roots, realising as she does so that her older sister, Rose, has sacrificed her own future so that Eilish can have the opportunity to better herself. In Brooklyn she overcomes homesickness by studying bookkeeping at evening classes in order to improve her prospects. She also meets, and falls in love with, Tony, a young Italian. However, when a sudden death in the family necessitates her return to her home town she learns the pain of grief and finally has to make a choice so difficult that she tries to ‘imagine nothing more’.

The writer is sympathetic to his heroine but conveys her faults as well as her good points. When she goes to the dance in the church hall with Dolores, the newest resident of Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house, the other girl informs her that she is the only fellow lodger who is not a bitch, yet Eilish makes a point of ditching her once she has met Tony and spent the evening with him.

Brooklyn is beautifully imagined by Tóibín and evoked from Eilish’s perspective. Dislocation is one of its main themes, but through this trope the protagonist is able to mature into an independent young woman. Despite this, small town Ireland is never far away; whether in her Brooklyn boarding house, peopled by other émigrés or those of Irish descent; at the dances run by her local church; and finally the options open to her when she returns to Enniscorthy. The novel is deftly written. We share Eilish’s experiences and feelings, urging her to follow her heart, although we know that there will be those that suffer and others that gain in the long run. I didn’t want to put it down, but neither did I want to reach the last page.

One comment on “Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

  • Hi there – Was interested to read your review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and wondered whether you would like to put a question to Colm Toibin about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him on 6th July and would love to hear from you. We’re always keen to get questions from readers with both positive and negative criticism of the books. If you could email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything – doesn’t have to be particularly clever!), we can either arrange for you to talk to Colm Toibin himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you get to hear your question on BBC World Service Radio. The programme will air on 6th August at 11.00hrs on the BBC World Service. Please do get in touch.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club

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