Colm Tóbín writes about what he knows. He writes about the village where he was born in Ireland. He writes, in Brooklyn, about the immigrant experience. Eilis Lacey, her sister Rose, and her Mom live in an all-female household, although there was once a father and three sons.
Eilis would be happy living her entire life right in this village which she loves, but her mother’s pension is small and there are few opportunities in her village for a career or a good marriage. When Father Flood, who once knew her father, visits his Irish home from America and learns that Eilis knows how to keep account books, he talks he mother into sending her to Brooklyn. On the way out of Ireland she visits quickly with the youngest of her three brothers who all had to move to England to find work.
The author of this book, which was twice short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, knows how to tell a story. He gently leads us through the enormity of leaving home alone at such a young age. We are driven forward into the details of Eilis’s unsought adventure. The Father has strong and trustworthy connections within his Brooklyn parish, although because of her age and the times Eilis’s behavior is under constant scrutiny by her landlady, the other girls who live with her, her employers, and her fellow employees. She stays on her feet, until she doesn’t.
However the author just as gently portrays her crushing homesickness. Finally, when Father Flood understands the depths of her despair he helps her enroll in night school bookkeeping classes so she won’t always have to work as a retail clerk. Being busier is better. Eilis is also encouraged to attend the parish dances on Friday nights.
The second half of this novel was more problematic for me because of the choices that Eilis is required to make. Perhaps the Catholic Church would help a poor girl find the money to travel again back and forth on a ship due to a family matter, but it tested the limits of my credulity a bit. I came from a poor family and, although people were kind, no one handed out large sums of money and pride would not allow us to take it.
Nevertheless, Eilis is presented with an opportunity, however complicated, to return to a life in her Irish Village or to return to Brooklyn. In order to make the choice to stay in Ireland she would have to liberate herself from every inch of her upbringing, every one of her values, and she would have to betray church, family, and a person she loves.
The whole situation struck me as a bit contrived, but, since this author writes about his home maybe he has an actual family or village story in mind. Part of the problem may be that although the author tells a good story he is still a man writing about a young woman and he has the reader viewing her from the outside. This is not a first person story. We care about Eilis, but we are not privy to much of her inner life. The ending is growing on me, but the novel doesn’t really speak to my own life and times (except for the homesickness; that I have experienced).
By Nancy Brisson