Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: "Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin

Some novels, regardless of their length, are big, with their weighty issues, larger-than-life characters and major plot twists. Other books are smaller, and although they may not be characterized by a great deal of drama or action, they still have some weight to them. Colm Toibin's Brooklyn definitely falls in the latter category.

It is the early 1950s in Ireland, and Eilis Lacey spends her life blending into her surroundings. Her older sister has a job in Dublin, her brothers have moved to England and even her friends are heading toward marriage. After Eilis finds a job where she is treated like a servant, her sister and an Irish priest in America arrange for her to move to Brooklyn, where she will live in a rooming house with other Irish girls and work in a store until she can find an office job. She experiences some homesickness and struggles with the same feelings of inadequacy until she meets Tony, an Italian plumber who is clearly devoted to her, and starts to introduce her to life in America (complete with Coney Island and a Brooklyn Dodgers game). And as they begin planning for their future, she receives disturbing news from Ireland, which sets a number of events into motion.

Toibin is a great writer, and I always marvel at his ability to infuse "everyday" situations with a kind of poetry. I felt the buildup to Eilis' move to America took too long, although it did lay a foundation for what occurred later in the story, but once Eilis settled into her life and became a bit more animated, I felt the book hit its stride. I liked many of the characters, and disliked the ones you clearly were supposed to, and found the way Toibin unfurled the story was really compelling, even if it did so with more of a whisper than a scream. All in all, I enjoyed this book, even if it lacked the "punch" I was hoping for. (I'd also recommend several of Toibin's earlier books, including The Blackwater Lightship, The Story of the Night and The Master.)

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