Colm Toibin's Brooklyn

I had heard of Colm Toibin, twice shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize and author of the critically lauded The Master, but I had never read any of this books until I happened across his newest Brooklyn. Largely, Toibin's book is about the immigrant experience and the difficulties of returning home, but it is also a novel about one woman's maturation, her change from a person living in the shadows to one fully experiencing life.

Brooklyn follows the experience of Eilis Lacy, an ordinary Irish girl from the small town of Enniscorthy. Almost without her knowing it, she is packed off to the United States. Her sister Rose, the organizer of the family, seems to understand that Eilis will come to nothing if she sticks around the small town, so she arranges with an Irish-American priest, and resident of Brooklyn, to send Eilis to the States. Eilis is used to taking Rose's heed, so she packs her bags and boards the boat.

What she finds when she arrives in Brooklyn is that nothing is the same, not even the bread or butter purporting to be a replica of her Irish favorites. Eilis looks around her modest boarding room and job at the local department store and realizes that she is at home no where. Toibin brilliantly captures the feeling of the immigrant - really the stature of the outcast - as someone without land, place, or purpose. Eilis digs her heels in and makes the best of it, slowly overcoming her homesickness and meeting Tony, the only person she's ever really been able to talk to. Yet, Ireland is always over her shoulder.

When a tragedy calls her back to her native country, she returns, but not without hesitation. Back in Enniscorthy, she realizes that the shadows have dissipated and the shy girl who stocked cans for Mrs. Kelly at the local convenience store is now the town's glamorous darling. Boys who never looked at her twice are now vying for her attention, and she's even been offered a real job.

Here, though, Brooklyn is over her shoulder, and she has a great decision to make: does she stay in Ireland and live the life that she dreamed of before moving to Brooklyn, or does she return to Brooklyn, the place that made all her dreams possible?

With deft prose and subtle characterization, Toibin contemplates the notion of whether anyone can ever really return home.


  1. This one looks terrific. Great review. I need to add it to my list!

  2. I'll add this to my list. What seems another lifetime ago I attended a conference of the National Council for the Teachers of English. A professor from a small college in Kansas implored us not to teach our students out of their family and told his story of growing up in a large dysfunctional, alcoholic family in a mining town in Montana. He was among the few in his family to graduate high school, the only one who went to college, the only one with a doctorate. He talked with great sorrow of how his education freed his mind but how his family turned away from him because he was now "different." At the end of a passionate speech, he quoted the "Isle of Innesfree" with tears streaming down his cheeks. He was almost 70 years old, and the pain was overwhelming and proven unforgettable to watch.


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