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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, book reviewEilis is a young woman living in a small town in Ireland. She lives with her widowed mother and her older sister, Rose, a poised and polished woman who, it seems, has overcome her humble origins and now moves in Enniscorthy’s more up market circles. Although she’s part trained as a book keeper, Eilis can’t find a job; in 1950s Ireland, Eilis is not the only person struggling to find employment. Out of the blue Eilis is approached by a priest who knows of a job in New York; it’s only sales work in a department store but there’s a chance that Eilis could be considered for a job in the accounts office later on if she does well.

Although she’s reluctant to leave her family, Eilis takes up the opportunity and starts a new life in the United States. There she lodges with the fearsome Mrs. Kehoe along with other girls from Ireland and other parts of America. Supported by another priest, a contact of the priest from home, Eilis starts to make a life for herself but it takes her a long time to settle in. Then, just as Eilis begins to feel happier about her new life, she receives sad news from Ireland and is faced with a difficult choice.

There are plenty of books about the experience of the Irish immigrant in the United States so I wasn’t convinced that author Colm Toibin could bring anything new to the subject. However, I found “Brooklyn” to be a highly enjoyable and thought provoking read, even if I didn’t learn anything new. It’s the first Colm Toibin novel I’ve read and I found it much more “mainstream” and much less “literary” than I’d expected given this author’s reputation. However, there is much to recommend it and it is undeniably the work of a gifted writer.

The highlight of this relatively short novel is undoubtedly the expert characterization. For a male writer, Toibin paints wonderful portraits of female characters; mealtimes at Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house are animated affairs full of feminine chatter about clothes and men and Toibin manages to sum up the different personalities of Eilis’s fellow lodgers in an economic but colourful way. Eilis’s sister, Rose, is an enigmatic character and I couldn’t help thinking that there was always something we had yet to learn about her but no revelation ever materialised; nevertheless I thought this character was superbly drawn and I had a strong mental image of this attractive, confident woman holding her own among the wealthy Enniscorthy society types despite her very different background.

“For such a simple story this novel packs quite a punch.”

The only exception is Eilis; she lets other people make decisions for her, sitting back and always accepting her lot as if she has no choice. I found her a somewhat frustrating character because she comes across at times as lazy, unwilling to think for herself but this of course, is of Toibin’s deliberate making and not any flaw in characterization. To have been an immigrant arriving in New York in the 1950s must have been at once an exciting and a daunting experience; this comes across through Eilis’s housemates but those characters chose their path while Eilis has simply gone along with what she feels she must do. The adventurer in me wanted Eilis to blossom and relish her new life but the story dictates that Eilis should face the challenges stoically as always.

Toibin does a good job of capturing 1950s New York, seizing on not just the excitement of newly arrived immigrants but also the social change at the time. There’s a scene where the department store where Eilis works becomes the first in the city to sell nylons in colours for black women, which is one of the most memorable sections of the story. What I really liked was the way that New York is captured in the behaviours and experiences of the characters rather than in the visual aspects that are familiar to most of us anyway; I especially loved the warm portrayal of the Italian-American family that seemed to me so evocative of the spirit of the era.

For such a simple story this novel packs quite a punch. For the main part the story moves along steadily – some might say ploddingly – but it’s the deeply affecting climax that makes “Brooklyn” a worthwhile read. A few chapters from the conclusion it is clear that the novel cannot end happily given the choice that Eilis has to make but it is Toibin’s telling of the story that keeps this novel exciting to the very end.

If you can get past the rather ordinary first half of “Brooklyn” you will certainly be rewarded.

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by Colm Toibin

5 Comments on "Brooklyn"

  1. Iris
    26/11/2010 at 19:09 Permalink

    I really really enjoyed Brooklyn as well. And you are right, quite a punch at the end. I can’t wait to read more of Toibin’s novels now. I have to admit I did not think of this as a simply story, the language and the emotions are too much for me to see it as simple. But then, I do see how some stories are more complex :)

  2. eilidhcatriona
    29/11/2010 at 10:15 Permalink

    This has been sitting on my bookcase waiting to be read for a few months now – I keep thinking it looks good but haven’t got round to it yet! One of these days…

  3. Mary Bor
    Mary Bor
    04/12/2010 at 18:48 Permalink

    Thanks for the comments. When I get round to reading more from Toibin I’ll be posting here…

  4. Luci
    07/12/2010 at 10:24 Permalink

    I’ve just read his latest short story collection, An Empty Family, since it fell into my hands at the library and I didn’t know if I’d be able to renew it. Some very striking stories, including some about migrants/immigrants and one about a woman returning to Spain after Franco’s death.

  5. Julie
    14/06/2011 at 15:24 Permalink

    Hi there – loved your review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. Just wondering if you or any of your readers 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. 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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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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