by Colm Tóibín
2009 / 282 pages
read by KIrsten Potter 7h 37m
rating – 8 / contemp fiction
This is the reread of a book I first read probably in about 2010, when the paperback was first published. I wasn’t all that impressed at the time and although I’ve read all of Tóibín’s books since, only Nora Webster really makes me sit up. It’s okay though.
On the second reading, the setting of Brooklyn in the early 1950s and through the eyes of a young Irish immigrant girl is really the most interesting part. On my first reading I was s0 involved with the characters and the slowly developing plot that I kind of missed the wonderful way Tóibín has with sights and sounds of a mid-century Brooklyn.
The plot: In accord with her family’s wishes, Eilis (Eye-lish) Lacey has come to New York from a tight-knit family and a close community. She leaves her sister Rose to care for their widowed mother. Actually, Rose is denied the opportunity Eilis doesn’t really want, so Eilis expects herself to do well. And she has the assistance of the kindly and visiting American Catholic Father Flood who relocated years prior.
Fwiw, Eilis means “God’s oath” in Celtic and that does tie in with the plot. And the community the Lacey’s live in is the same one Nora Webster and her family live in and the Lacy’s are mentioned in Brooklyn while the Websters are mentioned here, but there is no other connection.
As expected, Eilis struggles on the ship and then in the city first with bouts of homesickness but then for her own identity without family or neighborhood support and the old life she expected to live – where is “home?” But the good Father Flood continues to help Eilis in Brooklyn by finding her appropriate living quarters, a decent job and enrollment in college classes – even a sort of social life. Eilis is quite shy by nature so going to classes and dances in order to assimilate is not something she is eager to do. But she’s doing her best.
Of course the tale is twisted with unexpected romance, conflict, changes and choices. And things don’t stay the same in the old “home” of Ireland which Eilis left – but that’s for the culmination.
The post-WWII setting related in Toibin’s crisp, clear and intelligent prose is perfect from the importance of the Catholic Church as a cushion against complete cultural shock, to the boarding house in the midst of people from all nationalities and religions with new ways and customs. Racism against Italians and Jews and Norwegians and lower class Irish is almost rampant. The city feels intimidating at first, less so as time goes on.
The workings of the department story where Eilis works reminds me of The Ladies’ Paradise by Balzac – great book.