Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (2009) Scribner (2009) 262 pp
I must preface this post with a disclosure: I have never read Tóibín’s The Master. I’ve had it for a while now and it sits there like a present. From what I’ve read elsewhere, particularly on the Man Booker Prize forum, The Master is so good that reading Brooklyn afterwards is a disappointment in comparison. It seems like people who have not read The Master enjoy reading Brooklyn very much. I was not handicapped with any preconceptions, and I thought Brooklyn to be one of the best longlisted books the Booker Prize has seen in years.
The story is fairly simple, and I’d like to introduce the plot and then discuss why I think this book deserves its spot on the longlist. The book is set in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Enniscorthy, Ireland, lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. Her father died only a few years before, and her three older brothers have moved to England in an attempt to make their way in life. Despite the distance, the family is a happy family, and Eilis has always been watched over and loved. All do what they can.
Since Jack, the nearest to her in age, had followed his two older brothers Pat and Martin to Birmingham to find work, Eilis had moved into the boys’ room, leaving Rose her own bedroom, which their mother carefully tidied and cleaned each morning. As their mother’s pension was small, they depended on Rose, who worked in the office of Davis’s Mills; her wages paid for most of their needs. Anything extra came sporadically from the boys in England.
Eilis herself has recently completed some courses in bookkeeping, but the only job she can secure is working for a slight wage in the shop of the miserable Miss Kelly. When Rose invites an Irish-American priest, Father Flood, to dinner, Eilis is stunned to find out that plans are already in the works to ship her to Brooklyn to get better work and better prospects. Part of Eilis is attracted to the idea; or, at least, she knows the reasons why she should be attracted to it:
She had a sense too, she did not know from where, that, while the boys and girls from the town who had gone to England did ordinary work for ordinary money, people who went to America could become rich. She tried to work out how she had come to believe also that, while people from the town who lived in England missed Enniscorthy, no one who went to America missed home. Instead, they were happy there and proud. She wondered if that could be true.
Eilis recognizes that she is being given a special opportunity and that many people are working hard and sacrificing much to ensure she gets it, especially Rose, who, “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.” While the plans are in effect, Tóibín, in limpid and subtle prose, describes the community in which Eilis has always lived and had always planned to live. Soon Eilis, sea sick, is on a boat for America, uncomfortably grateful for the kindness of her family, friends, and for the strangers she meets on her way to and in Brooklyn.
Because I’d read several reviews and comments about Eilis’s passive nature, I expected her to be . . . well . . . passive. I didn’t see her that way, though. Sure, she follows the track others laid down for her, but who in her circumstances wouldn’t? At the time she leaves Ireland she has nothing to look forward to in Enniscorthy except for the comfort that familiarity brings. Though that appears to be exactly what she wants, she recognizes the alternative placed before her — and especially recognizes the good will of those who gave her that alternative. Eilis goes along with it. I’m making a fine distinction here, but rather than see her as passive I see her as someone smothered by the good will of others and by the fortuity of her own circumstances. Because so many have sacrificed for her to get where she is, she feels beholden to them and accepts the path laid before her despite the fact that it is not one she would have chosen for herself.
Other peoples’ kindness and sacrifice can be a burden. One reason Eilis is the subject of so much good will is because she herself is a very good person. People are drawn to her — even the miserable characters want to repay her with kindness or recognition of some sort. For example, though she is the newest boarder, her landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, offers her the nicest room when it is vacated. Eilis recognizes the gesture and hesitates to accept the more complex relationship it would create.
Mrs. Kehoe’s tone, as she tried to smile, caused, Eilis felt, a sadness to come into the room. She believed that Mrs. Kehoe was giving her too much without knowing her well enough and just now had also said too much. She did not want Mrs. Kehoe to become close to her or come to depend on her in any way. Eilis left silence for a few moments, even though she knew that this might make her seem ungrateful. She nodded almost formally at Mrs. Kehoe.
Despite the burdens, the sacrifice of others pays off in Brooklyn. Eilis has a respectable job in a shop and combats, with the help of Father Flood, a well-rendered bought with homesickness by when he enrolls her in some evening courses to certify her bookkeeping skills. Indeed, “it was much more than she had imagined she would have when she arrived in Brooklyn first. She had to stop herself smiling as she moved along in case people thought she was mad.” Though the pain of separation is still there — “And because of this she understood that they would never know her now” — the longings for home become less severe, and her new life becomes her real life. Ireland, an alternate or past life, fades into memory.
I don’t think anything I’m about to say will spoil the book. The book moves slowly into the primary conflict. I knew nothing about that conflict, I liked it that way, and I will not say what it is here. But here’s a warning just in case — you may not want to read this review further! Eilis must come to terms that her new life in Brooklyn, which she did not choose, necessarily excludes the possibility of any other life she would have chosen in Enniscorthy. The conflict is so interesting to me because it is a true conflict between two very good choices, each with very good outcomes for Eilis. One is the result of the combined exertions of many people she’s loved. The other is the result of her own deeper desire — to choose this, at this point, is almost selfish. Nevertheless, circumstances conspire and give her a window of opportunity to escape the good — no, excellent — life provided to her. Though tentatively, she starts to go through that window. It all becomes almost unbearably painful to behold when we become attached to people who reside in each of the lives Eilis lives. Someone we care for is going to be hurt deeply. Someone is going to have to recede in the past, suffering the ache of separation so well-rendered at times in the novel.
Okay, now I’m really warning you — you may not want to read this review further!
Or, not so fast — Tóibín did such a good job taking me through this story that my own desires for Eilis were conflicted and in flux. We knew that once Eilis started going down her own pathway she would not return without some damage. When she returned to Ireland I was upset by the innocent efforts (or were they innocent?) to get her to stay. But by the end, Tóibín had me persuaded that she should stay and let her life in Brooklyn fade into the past and not her life in Ireland. Eilis is remarkably unfazed by the ache of separation I expected her to undergo when she left Brooklyn. I too, I realized, had suffered little as the life she lived in Brooklyn seemed like a fading dream to me too. How strange that these episodes in our life seem to drop out of our timeline when we return to the point of departure. Those weeks, months, or even years exist on another plane, and a distance (desired or not) begins to grow, quickly for some, slowly for other. It was interesting to me how well Tóibín recreated this very real feeling of distance in the book. To me, this was not a book about a passive young woman’s failure to make choices; it was a book about the webs we create in our relationships and the pain of loss and the ache — and then relief — of distance.
And, to me, the closing lines in the novel hit this underlying theme out of the ballpark. The initial ache of separation is hard to get through, but isn’t it tragic (yet necessary) that the ache of separation converts into indifference as distance grows? As the life you once yearned for becomes forgettable? And how sad to realize that you are the one fading away from those you love.