By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 24, 2009
By Colm Tóibín
Scribner. 262 pp. $25
For the second time in three weeks I have before me a work of fiction about the lives of Irish immigrants in the United States. Previously, it was Mary Beth Keane's heartfelt if slow-moving first novel, "The Walking People." Now we have "Brooklyn," the sixth novel by the eminent Irish writer Colm Tóibín. Probably the timing is pure coincidence rather than evidence of a new literary trend, but it's interesting that both books deal with the theme of persistent Irish identity in a new land and both evoke the deep homesickness that the Irish often feel here even as they strive to become thoroughly American.
Tóibín is an immensely gifted and accomplished writer who has covered a remarkable range of subjects from Henry James (in his novel "The Master") to homosexuality (in "Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar"), so it comes as no surprise that "Brooklyn" is intelligent and affecting. What may surprise American readers, however, is how confidently familiar Tóibín seems to be with New York City during the early 1950s, the period in which the novel is set. To be sure, he has had occasional teaching engagements in New York (and in Washington and Princeton as well), but they are unlikely to have taught him as much about, say, the Brooklyn Dodgers and "Singin' in the Rain" as is on display here. The period feeling of "Brooklyn" is genuine and impressive.
At the center of the story is Eilis (a Celtic name that mean's "God's oath") Lacey, who is somewhere around 20 years old when the novel opens. She lives in a small town in Ireland with her widowed mother and her older sister, Rose, a smart, spirited 30-year-old. Eilis is studying bookkeeping and preparing for a conventional Irish life: "Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children."
Then the unexpected happens. A priest visiting from the United States, Father Flood, takes a liking to Eilis and offers to sponsor her in Brooklyn, finding her a job with a merchant on Fulton Street and arranging a room for her in a boarding house for respectable young women. She has a bit of a timid streak -- "She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the [new] clothes and shoes" -- but Rose urges her to seize the opportunity: "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. Eilis . . . saw that in the future, as her mother got older and more frail, Rose would have to care for her even more, go up the steep steps of the stairs with trays of food and do the cleaning and cooking when her mother could not."
As much to honor Rose's sacrifice as to improve her own prospects, Eilis goes to Liverpool and boards a liner there for New York. She's put into a cabin with a brusque, no-nonsense Englishwoman who turns out to be an unlikely but wholly endearing saint; the voyage is dreadful, but the woman makes it bearable. Eilis gets off to a good start at the store -- she may be unassuming, but she's also competent and resourceful -- but then she receives a batch of letters from home, and suddenly her head is filled with images of what she has left behind:
"All this came to her like a terrible weight and she felt for a second that she was going to cry. It was as though an ache in her chest was trying to force tears down her cheeks despite her enormous effort to keep them back. She did not give in to whatever it was. She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died and she watched them closing the coffin, the feeling that he would never see the world again and she would never be able to talk to him again."
Her boss at the shop worries about her and calls on Father Flood. "You're homesick, that's all," he tells her. "Everybody gets it. But it passes. In some it passes more quickly than in others. There's nothing harder than it." To help her stay busy, he steers her to a night class "in bookkeeping and preliminary accountancy" at Brooklyn College. This proves to be her salvation. She passes the course easily, then does the same the following year, qualifying herself to work as a bookkeeper.
Of even greater moment, at a dance sponsored by Father Flood at the parish hall, she meets a young man named Tony, who clearly is attracted to her. He is "clean-cut and friendly and open in his gaze." He is also Italian -- his full name is Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello -- and he works as a plumber, a trade that gives her pause, but only briefly as he woos her, with kindness and patience and infinite tact. He and his brothers are ardent Dodgers fans and eager to make their mark on the world; they've bought a piece of land on Long Island and aim to develop it into a family compound from which all of them can work at their trades.
It takes a while, for Eilis is not one to take hasty plunges, but soon enough she returns Tony's love and begins to envision a future with him. Then terrible news arrives from Ireland, and she has no choice except to return. Almost immediately upon her arrival, various forces combine to pressure her into renouncing her new American life, to settle back into the set ways of her village. The choice, in the end, is difficult and painful.
"Brooklyn" is a modest novel, but it has heft. The portrait Tóibín paints of Brooklyn in the early '50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed; Eilis encounters discrimination in various forms -- against Italians, against blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish -- and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Tóibín's prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are uniformly interesting and believable. As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where it really is, "Brooklyn" has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis's struggle.