Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

BrooklynLast  year I made a comment in one blog post about how much I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Norah Webster. More than a few people people responded by recommending his earlier novel Brooklyn. Some went as far as saying Brookyn was “even better”. I’ve now read it and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t rate it as highly.

Both Norah Webster and Brooklyn give center stage to a strong female character who have to confront life changing situations and find their own way through them. The recently widowed Norah Webster and the young woman Eilis Lacey,  heroine of Brooklyn are two brave and spirited Irish women whose predicaments are portrayed with warmth, sympathy and depth.

We first encounter Eilis looking out from her bedroom window in the village of Enniscorthy watching her glamorous older sister Rose make  her way down the street to an evening at the golf club. Eilis is clearly more an observer of life than a participant. Though  she is  intelligent and reasonably good looking there few prospects of a husband or a job in accountancy or book keeping that would enable her to fulfill her potential. The most she can get is a lowly job as a shop keepers assistant in the grocery. Rose spots a solution when a  priest vists from America and agrees to help find a job in Brooklyn for Ellis.

Within a few weeks, Rose, having survived a rough Atlantic crossing, is ensconced  in a boarding house for Irish girls in Brooklyn and selling nylons in an upmarket department store. Tóibín details her first reactions to her new home, the strangeness of the busy pedestrian traffic after the quietness of Irish village streets, the novelty of heated bedrooms and the availability of affordable fashionable clothes. Over time her homesickness dissipates, she embarks on a study program in book keeps and falls in love with Tony, a good looking American Italian plumber with ambitions to get into the property market. Just  as life seems to be going her way,  tragic news from home sends her back to Ireland  and  the tension between the obligations of her old life and the excitement of the new.

Where the early parts of the book that dealt with Eilis’ sense of isolation and then the opening up of new possibilities felt touchingly convincing,  the final section lacked  that same feeling of authenticity. The emotional dilemma encountered by Eilis didn’t seem to be fully explored and we never got the examination of her inner thoughts that would have made her final decision more understandable and credible. As a result I put the book down thinking I’d been short changed, that there was so much more that Toibin could have done to explore Eilis’ emotional quandry. Brooklyn was sweet and lovely for the most part, but ultimately disappointed right at the end.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 8, 2016, in Book Reviews, Costa Prize, Ireland and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. I watched the film adaptation and it made me want to read the book. Perhaps my opinion on the book will be largely shaped by the movie because it will surely manipulate the images that I form in my head while reading it.

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  2. Interesting, as I certainly did prefer Brooklyn to Nora. I thought Brooklyn had an extraordinary technical challenge – how do you make a narrative interesting in which everybody acts in the protagonist’s interest and tries to help them? How do you write a book in which people are basically good?

    I think Toibin pulls it off, and I found the tension between what became not the old life and a new life but two new lives interesting.

    The ending seemed pretty natural to me. It was a false choice given how she’d committed before leaving the US and she was lying to herself in thinking otherwise. Eventually she had to wake up to that. I couldn’t see much other way it could have ended (I can’t say more without massive spoilers).

    Nora is more layered, that’s fair, but then she’s older and has children and a marriage behind her while Eilis is young with her life largely still ahead of her. I didn’t find though Nora a more layered book, simply a more layered central character which of course isn’t the same thing.

    Still, we can’t always like things to the same extent and it would be dull if we did.

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    • Good question about how to write a novel about essentially good people. Goodness in any form doesn’t have as much appeal does it.

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      • I’ve never understood that, actually. Goodness has always appealed to me in books and films. It’s a matter I suppose of how such people are written – sugary sweet can be boring but wise and experienced, well, I love that. Who doesn’t love Atticus Finch?

        In Brooklyn, there’s one person at least who doesn’t really act in Ellis’ interest – at least in the film – and to some degree I see that as it’s weakest – most cliched – part?

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  3. I have read all of Toibin’s novels and stories. I was a bit underwhelmed by Brooklyn. I thought the character lacked the complexity of others or perhaps she just wasn’t filled with as much angst. (: My introduction to him was The Master and then I just read him in no particular order. I saw a production of The Testament of Mary in Chicago. I was blown away. I then picked up the book to read it. You need not believe in a God of any sort to appreciate the telling of this tale from a mother’s point of view. A cynical and angry one, I might add.

    He is one of my favorite Irish writers but the one that roots around in my psyche and my heart is any work by Sebastian Barry. I especially enjoy the historical context, past and present day. The works are intertwined so you can begin anywhere you like, except perhaps not with “A Long Long Way.” These stories are sad which is unsurprising since the central voices belong to women, young and old, independent, proud, weak-willed,betrayed and mostly just making their way in a world that is changing beneath their feet. Barry’s lyricism is why I tend to read these books aloud.

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  4. Some years ago I read and reviewed Brooklyn for http://www.litteratursiden.dk, the Danish libraries’ online magazine on literature, and I loved the book. I also liked the recent film, although the book was subtler. The Danish version was very well translated, and the book was much nicer than you film-edition ;-). Anyway Norah Webster is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, so …

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    • The film missed a lot of subtlety for sure, for example the question of how the department store thought about women of colour.

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      • I was thinking more of her desicion, which is the essential part of the story. A film can’t cover all details in a book. My younger friend loved the film’s ending – I’m not sure. Of course both book and flm has the same ending, it’s just more subtle in the book.

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  5. I really liked the film except I didn’t really buy into the ending. I’m curious to read the book and see how they compare, although it sounds like they may have similar flaws.

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    • The ending is even less convincing in the book. She reaches her decision rapidly and without much explanation.

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      • I don’t think so. Given the situation, she has put herself into, it,s the only thing she can do. But should it have been otherwise? Could it have been otherwise? That’s what her musings in the end of the book are about

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      • Ah well. I probably won’t read it then but I’ll keep his other books in mind. I also found Tony a bit controlling in the movie, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered most people.

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  6. Even though I enjoyed both of these books, I preferred Nora. That might be down to the personal connection as so much of Nora’s story reminded me of things in my own mother’s life and the time we spent in Ireland. In some ways, I also found Nora more interesting than Eilis, more complex/layered.

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  7. I’ve never read the book, but O watched the movie recently and really enjoyed it! But as you said for the book, the movie for me was touching and beautifully made, but not that heart-wrenching and could’ve been better 😉

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  8. I’ve only read his The master which I liked a lot. I saw the film of Brooklyn, which I liked very much, but your description of the book and where it weakens for you does accord with my feeling about the film. The second half is less convincing there too, and the resolution – I don’t know how much it differs from the book – feels a little contrived. The film was still enjoyable of many levels, but had its weakness too.

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  9. I’ve been trying to decide if I should watch this movie, event hough I haven’t read the book yet. Now I’m thinking I just might. And then I’ll read Nora Webster.

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  10. That’s too bad. I have yet to read Nora Webster but am looking forward to it. I do love his style of writing.

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  11. I didn’t love Nora but I did go and see the film adaptation of Brooklyn (yes, before reading the book!). I LOVED the film – which of course made me want to read the book!

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  12. I read Nora Webster and had this recommended too. Although I still haven’t got a copy I do intend to read it one day. There are a lot of the things you describe – the sense of isolation and the contrast of two locations – that really appeal.

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  13. Personally, I preferred ‘The Master’to ‘Brooklyn’ (they’re the only Toibin novels I’ve read so far); you’re making me think I should push NW higher up the tbr pile …

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  14. I came at them in different order to you but I also enjoyed Nora Webster more than Brooklyn. I did however like it more than you, even at the end. I went to listen to him talk recently about Nora but one of questions was about difference between end of Brooklyn in novel and in film. He admitted that end of film, which goes further than novel does was the bit guaranteed to move him to tears every time he watches it. However he also said he didn’t think you could do that in a novel and it had to left more open for readers. I could see his point though didn’t actually agree!! – I thought book of Brooklyn better than film but thought film had more satisfying ending!

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  15. I had the opportunity to read an excerpt of Norah Webster at the end of my copy of Brooklyn, but I haven’t yet read it. Your thoughts are encouraging me to do so and soon.

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  16. Colm Toibin’s is brilliant. It’s difficult to go from one novel to another, especially as you did, loving “Nora Webster.” Expectations are high. This was a thoughtful, insightful review. Appreciated.

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  17. I have never read Toibin. Sounds as if I should it start with this one! 😀

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