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Brooklyn, Colm Toibin

Despite being such a well-known, successful writer, Brooklyn was the first Toibin book I have read. And now that I have I will probably go and read everything else he has written. It doesn’t happen to me often that I read a novel and then want to read everything else by that author. It happened when I read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee and the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. To say that Brooklyn was poignant would be an understatement. The prose is deceptively simple and as clear as the surface of the calmest water, but underneath whirls a seething mass of emotion.
Eilis Lacey is a young Irish girl who lives at home with her Mother and older sister, Rose, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. The house echoes with the ghosts of not only her dead father, but also the several older brothers who had to leave in order to work in Birmingham. Yes, it's about the Irish immigration experience, but it is much more than that. This is the genteel lower middle-class experience. Eilis is set up with a good offer of employment in Brooklyn, under the care of Father Flood, the Brooklyn Irish American priest, whilst Rose, who has a good job and plays regular golf and is a general girl-about-town, remains at home with 'mammy'. At first Eilis does not want to go - does not want to leave her home, her home town, her friends... but she does and so enters into the life of Ma Kehoe's Brooklyn boarding house. What Toibin is great at is charting the intricacies of relationships between the girls in the boarding house, whilst economically revealing the depth of Eilis' homesickness which goes on for months. Yet all the while Toibin masterfully leaves the really important stuff left unsaid so it sits there, hovering over the narrative like a weight that the reader is waiting to fall and crash down. Eilis meets Tony, the son of Italian immigrants, and they gradually fall in love, yet Eilis carefully plodding along in her book-keeping course at Brooklyn College. It is only when Rose dies from a heart condition that Eilis has to return to Ireland, also armed with the knowledge - sent in a letter from her brother Jack - that as the unmarried girl she will have to be the one to return home to live with her Mum. Tony, having by now declared his love for Eilis, insists they marry in a secret civil ceremony, which they undertake before she leaves. Once back in Ireland Eilis has to contend with her Mother's assumptions that, no matter what Eilis says, she will remain now in Ireland with her. What is the most frustrating and therefore the most effective part of this story is how no-one speaks about the important stuff - Eilis does not tell her Mother that she has already married Tony, or that she insists she will be returning to Brooklyn, what with them having sent her there in the first place. It comes out at the end, through skillful interference from a local shop-keeper for whom Eilis worked before emigrating. It is only when this happens that the story concludes, sadly yet, we feel, rightly. Or do we? Toibin has providing an ending that I'm sure many would have mixed feelings for. If she returns to Brooklyn then she leaves behind something very important to her, yet if she does not then she leaves something important in Brooklyn. She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, yet eventually the decision is made through one simple act. The reaction of the Mother is superb. For my ears, the dialogue was pitch perfect. It's a beautifully poignant work and worthy of the prizes I'm sure will be heaped upon it in due course.

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