Wednesday, May 13, 2009

#29 - Brooklyn

Weeks have passed since I finished reading Colm Toibin's ridiculously fabulous new novel, Brooklyn. When the book arrived in the mail, I let it sit on my desk for a couple of days because I knew it was one of those books that once I started reading, I wouldn't be able to put it down. Both of Toibin's previous books were equally excellent but Brooklyn is hands down my favourite. In fact, I'm going to say that it's probably the best book I've read so far this year. 

Eilis has spent her entire life in the village of Enniscorthy where she spends her days taking bookkeeping classes and her nights being ignored by local boys at local dances. She lives in the shadow of her successful, poised, well-dressed older sister Rose, who has built an existence for herself in the small town with a good job and a passion for golf. When a priest from Brooklyn comes to visit and offers Eilis the chance at a new life -- a job, a place to stay, a world away from Enniscorthy -- and she takes it. After all, both of her brothers have left to make their fortunes in England, and Rose does nothing but encourage her to take the chance. 

In Brooklyn, Eilis finds herself, she works hard as a shop girl during the day, and continues to learn bookkeeping at night. Simple goals, but all within reach. And her life truly opens up when she meets Tony. Her homesickness has passed, and despite the moral strictness of 1950s America (not to mention Ireland), Eilis actually feels happy until tragedy brings her home. Everything is different now. Eilis is different, changed, more confident, schooled, and experienced, which leads her to a crossroads. Does she stay in Enniscorthy or does she return to Brooklyn, to Tony?

The story reads overtly simplistic when you think about it -- a coming of age tale, an immigrant's experience -- but Toibin's skill at telling it remains unwavering throughout. His language, his ability to cast the characters, to explore their emotional situation without ever having them openly express an emotion stunned me. What more can you ask of a book than it be a well told story with well developed characters who make a choice that ultimately defines their life in the end? How many young girls emigrated, found themselves away from home, unhappy, and then surprisingly ensconced in a new life that widens their world? 

Eilis doesn't always make the right decisions. Her human flaws are always apparent. Yet, her story has you engaged from the very moment the novel opens with the simple action of her watching Rose come home from work. If anyone out there has read and hasn't fallen completely in love with this novel as I have, I will swear right now that we can never be friends. 

READING CHALLENGES: I'm counting Toibin as my Irish entry for Around the World in 52 Books. It's also #1 so far in terms of the 30-odd books I've read so far this year...


Kailana said...

I have this book and put it on the read soon pile when you mentioned it in a previous post. I am now going to try and read it this weekend because I need a good read! I read too many good books in a row and it put me in a rut!

B.Kienapple said...

Unfortunately it was the simplicity and lack of openness that bored me here. I felt Toibin needed to tease out Eilis' experience a bit more.

But please...don't strike me if you see me at an industry event!

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