Brooklyn (Colm Toibin)


Well I liked this book!  The background of drearily prospectless lower middle class life in the back of beyond, alleviated by the prospect of emigration, was all too familiar to me.

Plot (and spoilers)

So the story is that it’s the 1950s in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and Eilis is living at home with her widowed mother and studying bookkeeping, with no jobs to be had.  Her sister Rose is already 30 and not married, but keen on golf.

An Irish clergyman working in Brooklyn, Father Flood, plays golf with Rose on a visit home and suggests he can arrange something better for her.  Silence at a meeting in the living room means she has agreed.  She sets sail for Brooklyn, and is violently seasick on the way.  In Brooklyn, she lives in an Irish boarding house and works in an Italian clothing store.  After an attack of homesickness–Father Flood is called to the rescue–she also studies accountancy in the evenings.

She meets an Italian called Tony at one of Father Flood’s dances and they start going out together.  She meets his Italian family and sees how different they are.  Rose dies suddenly, Eilis turns to Tony for comfort–she thinks he needs her to need him–they end up in bed together.  That does not go unnoticed.

Eilis decides she must return for a while to comfort her mother.  Tony insists on them getting (secretly) married before she goes.  When she returns to Ireland, America is so far away and she is glamorous and sophisticated in the stay-at-homes’ eyes.  She gets the chance to exercise her bookkeeping skills in Rose’s old firm and is getting together with Jim Farrell, a young man with his own business, who had previously ignored her.

Then shrewish Miss Kelly, who had grudgingly given her work in her shop, summons her and says she knows she is no longer Miss Lacey.  Eilis tells her mother she married a man in America and sets off on the way back.


I enjoyed the economical exposition very much–at the beginning we are introduced to Eilis, Rose and their mother and their situation within a page, and then the girl comes with a message from Miss Kelly and we’re off!  When we discussed this in Try Books! some people felt that there was too little description and in particular this left the character of Eilis both hard to grasp and hard to believe in.  But I do not agree–in fact, Eilis and Rose are almost to the life my mother and my Aunt Doreen except they’ve swapped some characteristics in the way that sisters will wear each other’s clothes.

There are some signs of symbolic realism:  Father Flood and Miss Kelly appear to represent opposite poles of something.  For instance, people are received in Miss Kelly’s shop with hostility, indifference, politeness or fawning depending on who they are and (to an extent) only allowed to buy what she thinks fit, while at Father Flood’s Christmas celebration everyone is welcome and fed the same food in large quantities.  Similarly, Miss Kelly sends round the girl for Eilis to brusquely tell her to come and work in the shop, while Father Flood sends her an elaborately courteous letter asking her if she might like to help out at Christmas.  But Father Flood seems to turn away from her after her ‘sin’ with Tony, while Miss Kelly is the agent of her being reunited with him.

Rose and Eilis are symmetrically silent–as they might be, being sisters.  Rose keeps her heart defect hidden while Eilis manages not to mention her marriage until forced into revealing it by Nettles Kelly.  So are these the things one does not mention in Irish history–death (as in the Great Famine) and absence (as in emigration)?

The sea seems to have some significance as well–Eilis is violently seasick while Tony and Jim Farrell show their differences in contact with it.  Tony can’t swim and wants Eilis to be with him, while Jim is a strong swimmer but realises that Eilis wants to be left to swim on her own at least for a time–this is the same kind of tact as when Eilis realises that everyone coming into the Fiorello home must remark on how different Tony looks from the rest, and so she doesn’t.  So they really were made for each other.  Sad.

So Father Flood = Father + Flood?  He does for Eilis what her dead father would have, combined with what this water imagery means.  It must be the unplumbed salt estranging sea, so the violent seasickness and homesickness that Eilis suffers are the same thing, while Tony and Jim show their true natures in it, in the acid of estrangement, we see Tony’s weakness and that Jim is the one for her.

So she made the wrong choice in the end?–If it was precipitated by Miss Kelly, it must be under suspicion at least.  I did think that the point of the book was a kind of Jane Austen story with a young woman reconciling herself to the possible–but maybe I was mistaken.

Can we date the action of the story precisely?  It’s obviously in the 1950s.  When Tony takes Eilis to the baseball game she says the Dodgers are going to get revenge for what Bobby Thomson did to them the previous season.  Wikipedia says:  Thomson became a celebrity for hitting a game-winning home run in a playoff game, off of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, to win the 1951 National League pennant. So he took her to the game in 1952, and she arrived in 1951.  Of course (an more easily), Tony takes Eilis to see Singin in the Rain when it has just opened–in 1952…

Maybe there were too many occasions where Eilis was the holy innocent–brought into contact with racial prejudice and the Holocaust and indeed anti-Italian prejudice so that she can show how far above it all she is.

The language was (for once!) accurate I thought.  There was genuine American speech from Miss Fortini:

–He doesn’t talk about himself all the time when he’s not telling you how great his mother is?


–Then you hold on to him, honey.  There aren’t two of them.  Maybe in Ireland, but not here.

and Irish from Patty:

–Well at least you don’t look like you’ve just come in from milking the cows any more.

–Did I look like that?

–Just a bit.  Nice clean cows.

Colm Toibin himself comes from Enniscorthy and his father was a teacher there.  Towards the end of the book, Jim and Eilis come across the retired teacher Mr Redmond.

–Where’s his son?  Eilis asked.

–Eamon?  He’s studying I’d say.  That’s what he usually does.

So maybe he’s put himself in his own book.  His family were active Republicans, so I wonder if Eilis being the only character allowed a specifically Irish (or indeed ethnic–Tony and his brothers all use anglicised versions of their names) means he especially approves of her?  Or again the fact that she has to cross the wide ocean tells us something about the radical loss associated with Irish emigration?

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