Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

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If Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn were any more understated, you would not be able to see it sitting on the bookshelf. Your eyes would slip past, drawn to something louder. But what a pleasure it is to read such a quiet book, constructed with care. The style suits the 1950s setting: Eilis Lacey cannot find suitable work in her small Irish town, so sophisticated older sister Rose arranges passage for her to America, where a job has been teed up. In Brooklyn, Mrs Kehoe runs a respectable boarding house and has no truck with ‘giddiness’ of any kind. Eilis fits in reasonably well, but then homesickness strikes as she realises how far she is from home and family. Loss, and hope, and just getting on with things are the main themes of the book – which doesn’t sound like too much to shout about, all things considered. And in truth, there isn’t much to the plot. But that really is not the point. Tóibín is concerned with life and how we interact with the people around us. He uses a potentially distancing third-person narrative but, rather like Virginia Woolf before him, allows us into Eilis’ consciousness. We more or less see through her eyes. The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team are the talk of the borough and even Mrs Kehoe surprisingly follows them. The game and the club mean so much to everyone – but things are changing. In 1957 (after the events of the book, but you sense that Tóibín likes this unseen, overhanging image of impermanence) the Dodgers will up sticks and move to Los Angeles, never to return. Eilis herself experiences this sense of transience: eventually she begins to see Brooklyn – especially with new boyfriend Tony – as ‘home’ and her life in Ireland starts to acquire some of the qualities of a dream. But how realistic are these feelings? One big shock is all it takes for her to find out. Changes bring dilemmas, which are gently explored by Tóibín: ‘Finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss.’ Haven’t seen the film. But if Nick Hornby has made even half a job of the script, it will be grand.

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