Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

toibin Imagine a fictional heroine who is the embodiment of A Good Person, with only one minor flaw — honest, hard-working, kindly, intelligent and so on. Her flaw? Whenever she is faced with conflict, she always opts for the path of least resistance, often letting others make her choice for her. What happens to her?

Hang on, you say. Fiction is littered with such heroines. Molly Theale in Henry James The Wings of the Dove. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. A whole gallery of young women in the fiction of Jane Austen. The answer is obvious: an evil person comes along, gains her trust, exploits her and the result is ruin.

Okay, let’s add another assumption — take evil out of the equation. Every person our character comes in close contact with does his or her best to be as decent as possible and act in the interests of our heroine. Now what’s the result?

Eilis Lacey is just such a heroine in Colm Toibin’s new novel, Brooklyn. And he has set himself the daunting challenge of creating a supporting cast in which evil — or even simply bad will — plays no part. The result is an intriguing, if somewhat frustrating, book.

We meet Eilis in Toibin’s familiar territory of Enniscorthy, southern Ireland, around 1950. The post-war years have not been economically kind to the town and her three brothers have already headed to England to seek work. Left behind in the family cottage are her aging mother, her older sister Rose (who is prettier, more sociable and more employable than Eilis) and our heroine. Eilis works Sundays in the only shop in town that is open that day (and does good work) but fulltime employment is not on the horizon.

Toibin wastes little time in setting his challenge in motion. Rose returns from the golf course to announce that Father Flood, an Irish priest now residing in America, will be coming for a visit. Eilis soon figures out that it has already been decided without consulting her that she will emigrate to America, Brooklyn to be exact.

A manipulative sister and an equally manipulative priest exploiting our heroine? Quite the opposite:

One evening, when Rose invited her into her room so that she could choose some pieces of jewellery to bring with her, something new occurred to Eilis that surprised her by its force and clarity. Rose was thirty now, and since it was obvious that their mother could never be left to live alone, not merely because her pension was small but because she would be too lonely without any of them, Eilis’s going, which Rose had organized so precisely, would mean that Rose would not be able to marry. She would have to stay with her mother, living as she was now, working in Davis’s office, playing golf at the weekends and on summer evenings. Rose, she realized, in making it easy for her to go, was giving up any real prospect of leaving this house herself and having her own house, with her own family.

Father Flood proves equally reliable, finding Eilis employment as a sales assistant in a department store (but with the hope of perhaps getting promoted to the office), a nearby room in a boarding house for single Irish women and the kind of immigration documentation that would be required to pass through Ellis Island and into America.

Toibin cannot resist having some fun with Eilis’s voyage in third class, introducing an American berth-mate whom the reader is certain will turn into an ugly American cliche — but she too looks after Eilis throughout the voyage, even selecting her clothes and makeup so as to attract minimum attention from the immigration officers.

Things are not totally pleasant in Brooklyn (homesickness is definitely an issue) but neither are they miserable. Eilis’s employer is more than decent; her landlady bumps her up the priority list at the boarding house into the best room in the house. Father Flood has organized Friday dances at the local parish church and Eilis reluctantly attends (she does a lot of things reluctantly, it has to be said) and eventually is taken up by Tony, an Italian who has snuck over to the Irish church and become entranced with her.

Various minor conflicts have arisen along the way and Eilis has consistently taken the path of least resistance. Surely, now, the author will abandon this conceit and Tony will prove to be an utter rogue. He does not and becomes yet another character who wants to contribute to what is best for Eilis.

We are about two-thirds of the way through the book at this point, due for a major conflict and one does in fact arise. Toibin has written himself into a bit of a box at this stage. Is everyone in the book still going to be so damn decent? Will Eilis ever actually take a risk and make a considered decision? Good fiction depends on escalating, not avoiding, conflict. How is the author going to end this thing?

Alas, this reviewer has written himself into a similar box because to supply answers to those questions would be a terrible spoiler. From here on, you are on your own.

I like Toibin as an author and I very much liked this book, but that endorsement does come with some caveats. Toibin has always preferred the contemplative to the active and does carry it to an extreme in this novel. Good as she is, Eilis is a frustrating character and it is hard not to wonder: “Won’t she ever actually do something?”

Toibin is best known for his last novel, the award-winning The Master, his imagination of the life of Henry James, and Brooklyn is certainly not as ambitious a work as that one. In many ways, it is an expansion of some of the stories in his short story collection, Mothers and Sons (reviewed here), where he also explores what happens to passive characters, albeit in less depth.

I also want to emphasize that there is much more to this book than the theme on which I have chosen to concentrate. The book does consider the mid-century Irish diaspora, the situation of immigrants in New York at that time and there is some exploration of racial issues that are arising in the America of the day. Other reviews have addressed these themes (I am rather late into the game on this book) and I have not bothered to repeat them.

If you have not yet read any of Toibin’s books, I would not start with this one — depending on your tastes, The Master, Mothers and Sons or The Blackwater Lightship would all be better candidates. If you have read and liked some of his previous work, I would certainly recommend Brooklyn — while it is not as ambitious has some of his previous books, it is very good writing from an author who knows what good writing is about. A somewhat unconventional novel, it is also a rewarding one.

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21 Responses to “Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín”

  1. Candy Schultz Says:

    I humbly request your forgiveness for not knowing Munro was Canadian.

  2. Candy Schultz Says:

    I just ordered four of her books.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Candy: All is forgiven. Many of her stories are set in southwestern Ontario, just up the road from you. Read them and then plan an excursion — I am not as keen on Alice as a lot of people are, but she does write very good short stories. And given that you are so close, a trip into the area seems worthwhile. And I certainly look forward to your thoughts when you get there. Kevin

  4. Candy Schultz Says:

    I know Ontario. My dad was Canadian.

  5. John Self Says:

    I agree pretty closely with you here, Kevin. I must admit that it did not occur to me at all that everyone was acting in Eilis’s best interests, or indeed that this was a novel approach. Your analysis is most worthwhile, as always.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment John. Your review was most helpful to me in altering my expectations of what this book was about. Others should drop in on it here. It is an excellent analysis of the book that does take a somewhat different slant from mine, but the two are quite complementary.

  7. claire Says:

    Your review reminds me of the book I just finished: Anita Brookner’s Strangers. The male protagonist, in fact, is the embodiment of a good person and also always takes “the path of least resistance.”

  8. Kerry Says:

    Colm Toibin has eluded me thus far. I assume it’s because he and I are on opposite sides of the Atlantic. He sounds like a “writer’s writer”, the kind of writer I like.

    On the strength of Kevin’s and John Self’s recommendation, I am not going to start with Brooklyn, but with The Master. Thanks guys, for acting as lighthouses in this shoal-filled literary sea.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I certainly recommend The Master. If you want to try a sthort story first, here is a link to “Famous Blue Raincoat”, one of my favorite stories in Mothers and Sons and I think a good example of Toibin’s writing. For Toibin’s darker side, try this recent New Yorker story — it is also set in his favorite Irish town. I think you will quite like him.

  10. Kerry Says:

    That is excellent, Kevin! Thank you. I always enjoy sipping a bit before diving all the way in. I really appreciate the links.

  11. Kerry Says:

    I have now read Toibin’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “The Color of Shadows”. He is an outstanding writer with great control over his stories. As you have rightly warned, his stories do not contain much action, but they do manage to burrow to the heart of relationships.

    I found it interesting that both these stories involve estranged family members. I almost get the impression that this may be a particular preoccupation of his.

    At any rate, thanks for the links, thanks for the reviews, and he goes on the list.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Glad you found the links worthwhile, Kerry. Toibin does want to be read in the right frame of mind.

  13. Colette Jones Says:

    Some of the Munro comments have ended up under this book somehow.

    Not only did our heroine not encounter any bad will, she seems to be devoid of emotion in the early parts of the book. As a whole, this works I think, it is part of the construct, but it was so boring that I almost didn’t carry on, which would have been a shame, as Eilis’ ultimate dilemma was highly intriguing indeed. The consequences of her passive decisions eventually caught up with her and she couldn’t rely on anyone else to decide her fate.

    I would argue that she made the right decision too, but can’t do so without giving anything away.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Actually, Colette, Candy’s Munro comments came right after the Man Booker International, before my Castle Rock review was up.

    I agree with your assessment of Brooklyn — thanks to John Self’s review I started it without the expectations I would have had otherwise and that certainly helped. I did find it to be quite a worthwhile book but it is a bit of an “exercise” in some ways. I reached much the same conclusion with the Ishiguro.

  15. Jonathan Birch Says:

    So I finally got round to reading this — thanks for your interesting review Kevin. I have to say I found the whole thing surprisingly insubstantial, and the final “dilemma” a little bit contrived. Yet it’s still a likeable book — Toibin writes very vividly, and has to be considered a major Booker contender. I think Brooklyn would be a popular winner and would sell very well.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jonathan: It has been two months since I read Brooklyn and I would say that it gets somewhat better with memory. My thoughts on the first read were similar to what you imply — Eilis is a difficult character to get interested in because she is so passive; Toibin’s writing is as impressive as ever, even if the final result is different from what most readers expected. I’ll be giving this one a second read if it makes the shortlist, which I imagine it will.

  17. Trevor Says:

    I just finished Part II, and I’m really enjoying this one so far. Perhaps I expected to find nothing redeeming in Eilis and as a consequence am finding much to like! At any rate, I’m looking forward to the rest of it!

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m not surprised that you are enjoying it, Trevor. I’d cite two factors. One is that you didn’t arrive with a set of expectations that proved to be false, but could appreciate the book on its own. The other (which I think has been often overlooked with this book) is that you have some personal knowledge of New York and its environs — something that I think Toibin captures quite well in the book. Hope it continues as strong as it has been so far for you.

  19. Trevor Says:

    I finished it Kevin and have been working on a post for tomorrow. I don’t think I’ll spoil it by saying it remained strong to me — in fact, I thought it as strong (particularly the writing and overall structure) as anything on the longlists of the past few years.

  20. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    [...] other reviewers, like KfC and John Self, have pointed out, Eilis is a very passive character. If you have not read the book, [...]

  21. … the kindness of strangers | Pechorin’s Journal Says:

    [...] This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last [...]

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