Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I knew next to nothing about Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, before I started to read it. In fact, the only thing I knew about this novel was that it is set in the area of Brooklyn I live. I'm very glad I read it though; I found it to be a very detailed, beautifully written coming-of-age story.

From the publisher:
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind. Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.
Having no idea what the novel was about, I was completely surprised by how much I enjoyed it and by how much of myself I saw in Eilis. From her trip alone across the Atlantic Ocean, how she forces herself to smile so she doesn't lose her job as a salesgirl, even the way she takes walks through the city on her lunch break, trying to see and explore more of her new home.

Eilis doesn't just have to learn how to survive on her own in Brooklyn, manage night classes and work, and dating, but she also has to deal with her ever-present sense of loss for the family she left behind. One day, after almost two years in Brooklyn, finally settling in, she is called home to Ireland to deal with a family crisis. Suddenly, Eilis finds herself in the position of having a choice; she can stay in Ireland with her family, working as a bookkeeper, and settle down, or she can return to Brooklyn, without her family, work as a shop girl, and eventually give up on her professional dreams to keep house and home for Tony, who wants to marry her.

Brooklyn is a beautiful story, not just because of the plot--which is good--but in the way that Toibin describes things in this novel, making each part seem so real.

On one morning, Eilis goes to work and finds there that the store is having its yearly nylon sale.
The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone's voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming back to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.
As someone who has worked retail during a holiday sale, that exactly describes how I felt during my shifts. Body on automatic, mind somewhere pleasant.

Another true-to-life description is Eilis' take on her daily walk to work:
As she walked along, however, she knew she was getting closer to the real world, which had wider streets and more traffic. Once she arrived at Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn began to feel like a strange place to her, with so many gaps between buildings and so many derelict buildings. And then suddenly, when she arrived on Fulton Street, there would be so many people crowding to cross the street, and in such dense clusters, that on the first morning she thought a fight had broken out or someone was injured and they had gathered to get a good view.
That paragraph perfectly describes what my mornings--and evening--are like here in New York. Crowds of people, jostling to get closer to the street, forced to dodge them left and right... The whole book is like that; he just sucks you in. Now that I'm done with Brooklyn I'm looking forward to getting my hands on Toibin's other books.

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