Review – Brooklyn – Colm Toibin


Format: Paperback 256 pages


Penguin Books Ltd


My Rating =A


Brooklyn is Colm Toibin’s sixth novel but my first experience of his work – in hindsight, I am grateful that I wasn’t distracted by niggling comparisons to his other novels and was able to focus on this delightful tale.

Our story begins in Enniscorthy in the South East of Ireland in the 1950s and we are immediately faced with Eilis Lacey, our protagonist, who is at a crossroads in her life, about to complete her bookkeeping classes yet facing an uncertain future as jobs are scarce in the locality. She lives at home with her widowed mother and sister, Rose and although, on paper, a happy family, they certainly don’t communicate very well with each other – a detail which is reinforced when Eilis seems unable to communicate her fears about emigration to the USA as her family seem to be very cheery about her departure.

Next we are treated to scenes of Eilis’ new life in Brooklyn, her adjusting to new accommodation at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house, her new job in Bartocci’s department store and dances at the parish hall where she meets Tony, an Italian.American with whom she embarks on a romance.

But will it all end in tears? Eilis didn’t even want to come to America but she doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere now, spoiled by circumstances and in a sense displaced. Things happen to Eilis as opposed to her really engaging with life, whether it be Enniscorthy or Brooklyn – she’s like a sponge absorbing and melting into the background. Despite all of this I did feel sympathy for her and she seems all the more realistic for her flawed character.

There are a vast array of other vibrant, appealing characters including the wonderful Georgina who only appears for the sea crossing but she certainly makes an impression. Mrs Kehoe, the landlady is equally well drawn. Toibin manages not to turn her into a caricature although she is typical of those nosy, interfering Irish landladies who feel it their duty to safeguard the morals of their female tenants. Indeed as a newcomer to Toibin’s writing, I was very impressed by his representation of female characters, all of whom seem much more animated and interesting than the male figures.

Toibin’s writing style here is very lucid, extremely readable, in a few sentences he manages to convey so much and this deceptively simple style hides great emotional depth. Some will probably find it too easy for a Booker contender and yes, that thought did cross my mind but I can appreciate good writing when I see it and I think that it’s much harder to create powerful understated writing than all singing all dancing action. I really admire the way he has created a work which can be read on so many different levels – it’s as accessible as Maeve Binchy at her best, as poignant as William Trevor – nothing stiff and contrived here. The only negative thing I would foresee would be that some might consider the characters not developed enough but I think I prefer to be left to speculate as to Eilis’ motivation for some of her choices and not to be told the whole picture. It’s a tight little novel and part of its appeal for me was its straightforward nature. I think Brooklyn would appeal to a vast array of readers as long as you’re not in need of action scenes on every page. I’m so pleased that my first visit was a pleasant one and am looking forward to The Master which is on my ever increasing TBR pile.

PS Eilis is pronounced Ay Lish – I realise that Irish names can cause confusion at times!

PPS I much prefer the cover of the hardback edition.

My Rating – A

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  1. Penny Waugh says:

    This was the second Colm Toibin I read, the first being The Blackwater Lightship, and I badly wanted to read this as soon as I read about it.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly, Treez. Toibin’s gentle, deceptively simple style reveals an engrossing story and I agree too that some of the minor characters – Georgina, Nelly Kelly and others – stand out from the page.
    Eilis did annoy me sometimes, especially at the end, but this just emphasised how she simply no longer knew where she belonged. Left the book hoping very hard that she’s made the right choice.

  2. admin says:

    I’m delighted you enjoyed it as much as I did, Penny. Isn’t it great though when characters are so real you want to throttle them when they’re making (what we consider) to be the wrong decision. I agree that Eilis is a bit of a ditherer but I do feel optimistic that she will eventually find her own way in the world, she’s only just beginning really, having led such a sheltered existence pre Brooklyn.

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