I will begin with a confession – I have never read a Colm Toibin novel until now. After reading a review of his new novel, THE MAGICIAN, I thought it was time to introduce myself to such an exceptional novelist. I went to my card catalogue, another confession I have a personal library of over 7500 volumes, and found I owned one of Toibin’s earlier efforts, BROOKLYN. Since I grew up in that New York borough in the 1950s and 60s it was karma.
BROOKLYN reflects Toibin’s mastery of fiction and is the work of a superior writer. Beginning in Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1951, Eilis Lacey, a bookkeeper who lived with her mother and sister is offered a part time job in Miss Kelly’s grocery store which she accepts because of the lack of other opportunities. Soon, Father Flood, a priest whose parish in Brooklyn appears regaling Eilis of employment opportunities for bookkeepers in New York City. Flood will arrange for Eilis to work at Bartocci and Company located on Fulton Street in Brooklyn along with passage to America and a room at Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house. Eilis realized this was quite an opportunity but felt guilty about leaving her mother and sister. She will ignore her feelings of guilt and depart for a new life in America, not realizing that behind the scenes her sister Rosa had pushed for this move that would afford her sister greater opportunities.
Toibin easily conveys the ambience of living in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn in the post war world. The author is sensitive to the difficulties that a young single girl faces when she tries to adapt to a new culture and the problems that arise. His writing style offers an intimacy with his characters that enhances the reader’s experience. There is a softness and imperceptibility with his phrasing that makes the novel flow, but it does not take away from the deep emotions that are portrayed.
What sets Toibin’s writing apart is his ability as a male writer to understand and present the mind set and feelings of female characters – even insights into what life was like for a single Irish girl just arriving in America. Eilis’ concerns are presented in a thoughtful and private manner that reflects insights into her character and the crisis of confidence that she regularly experiences.
Toibin is very careful to lay out social class differences throughout the novel. First, in dealing with how the Irish are perceived on the ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. Second, the commentary exhibited by the young women in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house reflected by remarks centering around the “negro” clientele that were beginning to shop at Bartocci’s department store. Third, the juxtaposition of Italian and Irish families in Brooklyn through their language and cultural mores – a case in point is Italian family life in the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn which the author conveys with the accuracy to a reader who grew up in this neighborhood.
The novel presents a series of highs and lows which make up the human experience. Relationships, joy, death, and sadness are all present in Toibin’s easy pace that makes reading BROOKLYN feel as if you are gliding over each page. When Eilis seems to have finally adjusted to life in Brooklyn attending night courses in accounting at Brooklyn College, working during the day, and developing a wonderful relationship with Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello all seems well. Unexpectedly, Father Flood delivers the news that Eilis’ sister Rosa has died, and she must return to Ireland for a visit. What occurs on that visit may overturn the peace and happiness that she has finally found in America.
Eilis is a simple girl bordering on womanhood who Toibin presents with sustained “subtlety and touching respect. He shows no condescension for Eilis’ passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in a journal.”* This is a wonderful story about what it is to have a home and the ability of different locations to assert themselves over an individual.
Reading a novel by Colm Toibin has been a pleasure and I will certainly pick up THE MAGICIAN, his latest work, a historical novel about the German writer Thomas Mann.
- Liesi Schillinger, “The Reluctant Emigrant,” New York Times, May 1, 2009.