Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is one of the loveliest books I’ve read this year. The story evoked a sense of nostalgia for Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s for me, even though I have never visited either place and wasn’t even born then. I’m blaming the emotions I felt on the writer’s skills.
The story follows Eilis, a young woman living with her widowed mother and glamourous older sister, Rose, in their family home in a small town in Ireland. Times are hard, and Eilis struggles to find anything other than part-time work. Her brothers have already left Ireland to find work in England. Eilis’ mother’s pension is supplemented by Rose’s income.
Rose arranges for an Irish priest to sponsor Eilis to go to America and work in a department store in Brooklyn. The priest also arranges for Eilis to live in a boarding house with a widowed landlady and a houseful of young female Irish boarders. Eilis is desperately homesick at first, but eventually settles into the routine of her work and life. Eventually Eilis starts studying to become a book-keeper and meets a young Italian man, Tony, at a dance.
The way the divide between the races, cultures and religions is portrayed in Brooklyn is interesting. It is an enormous change when the department store where Eilis works starts to stock items aimed at coloured women, and the only person Eilis meets who is not Catholic in the whole story is her teacher at her book-keeping course, who is Jewish. When Eilis starts going out with Tony, she doesn’t tell anyone he is Italian, as that would also be frowned on. This made me smile, as in my Australian family tree there were Irish-Italian marriages during the gold-rush times. Despite their language barriers and cultural differences, my ancestors had religion in common, which was enough to get their romances across the line.
Tony falls in love with Eilis and she is beginning to fall in love with him too, when she receives news from Ireland that means she has to go home to her family. At first Eilis only intends to stay for a short while, but she is soon drawn back into life in Ireland and becomes horribly conflicted over where she belongs. To say what she decides would spoil the story, but I felt very sorry for Eilis having to make such a decision.
I enjoyed Brooklyn enormously and intend to read more books by Colm Toibin.