Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

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18 thoughts on “Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

  1. Glad you enjoyed this one. I have enjoyed all of Toibin’s books that have read. I’ll add this to the “to read” list.


      • No, of course I had forgotten. Yes, not only have I read Testament of Mary, but I’ve lent it to half the clergy in the diocese – very mixed reactions!


  2. Hm I LIKED this, warm and well-written – but from the author of The Testament of Mary which snagged away at me for weeks after reading it – I’m afraid to say that I have forgotten much of Brooklyn already, though i did enjoy it at the tiem.

    Perhaps I just LIKE books to disturb my sleep and leave me musing, questioning, pondering, arguing!


  3. I loved this book (as I do most of Toibin’s work) but one of my book groups panned it as dull and uninteresting. Personally, I think it is their soul’s that need praying for!


    • Haha! The good thing is that at this rate we’ll eventually both be reviewing things the other has already read, which should help with the old TBR pile! 😉


  4. Very well put, and spot on. Brooklyn is another in what’s becoming a long line of Toibin novels about hearts, and the quiet moments that move them.


    • Thanks, Matt! As always, you say beautifully in one sentence what I struggle to express in 300 words 🙂

      I think the gap’s been long enough now for me to read another Toibin – The Blackwater Lightship next, on your recommendation…


  5. […] The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book, didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn. […]


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