A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is the first Colm Tóibín novel I’ve read. I’ve been circling around his books for some years, after hearing (and liking very much) his readings aloud on radio and in interviews. I’d also read and heard a lot about Brooklyn, the film released in 2015 from his 2009 novel, so I was pretty sure that I’d like the novel. When I flew to New York a few weeks ago, I planned to watch Brooklyn after The Martian, but I fell asleep. Instead, I bought the novel in a New York bookstore and read it all happily on the return flight. I liked it very much, so, avoiding spoilers, let’s plunge in.
Éilis Lacey is a teenager, the younger of two daughters of a widowed mother in Enniscorthy, and it’s the 1950s, with few jobs to be found. Her successful and popular sister Rose meets Father Flood, a priest visiting from Brooklyn, at the golf club, and they arrange for Éilis to emigrate to a job at a drapery counter in a Brooklyn dress shop. Éilis has already found herself a job in Miss Kelly’s grocer’s store three streets from home, but floats along with the arrangements everyone is making for her. She travels to Liverpool to meet her youngest brother, and he puts her safely on the ship. She has a harrowing week-long crossing of sea-sickness and battles with the neighbouring cabin for use of the shared bathroom. Her rather too experienced roommate has to groom her for the Ellis Island interview: not too ill-looking, and not too made-up.
Éilis has had a room and her meals arranged for her in a superior boarding-house run by Mrs Kehoe, where she is one of several girls working in Brooklyn. She is bewildered, horribly homesick, walking in a daze from shop to room and back again. Father Flood arranges evening classes in book-keeping for her at a local college, to give her something in life that isn’t work, trying to pull Éilis out of her despair, and Éilis thrives. She starts to go to dances, she meets Tony, a blond Italian-American who likes Irish girls, and life starts to seem better. Her manager, Miss Fortini, starts to take an interest in Éilis’s relations with Tony, and closely supervises her trying on bathing suits for a trip to Coney Island, in the most unpleasantly creepy scene in the novel.
And then there is terrible, appalling news from home, and Éilis goes back on the next boat. She slips into her old circle of friends, who have boyfriends, and she becomes quite happy in Enniscorthy as the glamorous and smart Éilis from New York, with a beckoning future as the clever and efficient Miss Lacey in the accounts office, if she wanted. Jim Farrell, the most desirable bachelor in town, is trying to catch her eye. But the networks of Irish emigrants are insidious and far-reaching. Mrs Kehoe knows Miss Kelly, and Father Flood is an old friend of the Farrell family, so other aspects of her Brooklyn life become known to Enniscorthy. Although the plot of the novel presents Éilis with the choice of Tony back in Brooklyn, or Jim in Enniscorthy, as her future, it’s not that simple. Her choices are to stay in the censorious but comfortingly familiar life of her home-town, or to escape back to Brooklyn the foreign and alien, where she has begun to make a place for herself that might yet not be best for her.
Éilis is docile, dutiful and well-mannered, a hard worker and a good girl, who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone once she understands that it IS nonsense. She is naïve, taking people at their own estimation, not understanding how she might be seen and taken advantage of. Her dignity saves her, since a quiet manner and a firmness of purpose will get her out of most situations. But her passivity enraged me: with Tony, with Miss Fortini, with the machinations of Mrs Kehoe, and with the horrible Miss Kelly and Mrs Byrne back at home. It really isn’t clear what Éilis wants, or who she wants to be with most. (Which is probably the point: she probably doesn’t know herself, since she’s still very young.)
There is so much disapproval in this novel, washing around Éilis’s actions like a nasty scummy froth. Maybe this was what life was like in the 1950s, fielding snide remarks and cold looks in the street and at home, with the spectre of social disgrace for you and your family if somebody said something loud enough and long enough. What this novel conveyed most strongly to me was the claustrophobic life of small-town Ireland of the 1950s, where the priests and the older women – married and single – had absolute control over public reputation and behaviour. Their vast network of relations and acquaintances ensure that nothing and no-one escapes surveillance.
Éilis’s tidy, hard-working, kind and well-behaved life in Brooklyn means nothing in Enniscorthy, where she wears lipstick that’s too loud and clothes that don’t look like the clothes that nice girls buy in Dublin. Is she wilful, or thoughtless? Why isn’t she opening Tony’s letters? She is a threat because she resists manipulation by older women who want to repress her into the approved Enniscorthy shape and style. Instead, she’s down the beach with Jim. It’s a fascinating and highly readable novel, by a masterful storyteller whose narrative style is quietly convincing.
Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (2009) in countless editions.