Last 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.