Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

One thing that I particularly like about reading this year’s Man Booker long list is that it is giving me the opportunity to read for the first time some authors that I have always wanted to try but never quite managed, or possibly been slightly daunted by. A.S Byatt is one of them and that is still going slowly but surely (enjoyably so), Coetzee I will be starting today and is someone I have always been intrigued by. However its Colm Toibin who I pretty much own the back catalogue of works by but haven’t read a page… until I started ‘Brooklyn’ that was.

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I am not going to hold back I loved ‘Brooklyn’. I thought Toibin’s style of prose and narrative was simple and beautiful and throughout the whole book I was totally and utterly engaged. I liked and believed in all the characters and I loved the subtle simple plot. In fact ‘subtle and simple’ are possibly the perfect two words to sum this book up for me. Yet at the same time it’s quite an epic novel and one that covers a huge amount in fewer than 250 pages.

‘Brooklyn’ is a tale of Eilis, a young girl in Ireland after the Second World War where the economy is a disaster and jobs are scarce. Overjoyed simply to find a Sunday and occasional evening job when you can expect little more Eilis is suddenly offered a job and life in Brooklyn where work is easier to find and so is money and more importantly prospects. Eilis soon realises that this isn’t a sudden offer and in fact her mother, sister and brothers (in England) have been well meaningly plotting this for quite some time and really she has no choice.  After following her nightmare journey across the ocean we watch as Eilis settles into a new life with new people and new cultures in an unknown environment. We also watch as she grows from girl to woman and falls in love. It is eventually though a trip home that leads to the climax and a huge decision for Eilis… I wont say any more than that, I will say I bet the ending will either seal the deal for people or possibly put them off the book completely.

The plot brings us some wonderful, wonderful surroundings. I loved the Ireland we briefly got to see at the start and especially when Eilis ends up working in the local shop where supplies are low and people get special treatment, well bread that’s not off, if the owner likes them. When Eilie moves to Brooklyn you could vividly see the streets of shops and as Eilis works in one of these ‘Bartocci’s’ we get to see how everything runs and I could just envisage it so clearly. I will admit it; I ended up wanting to be there in Eilis’ house share in 1950’s Brooklyn!

The plot also brings up many subjects. The first is poverty and how the Second World War left countries like Ireland and all the people who survived the horrors of war behind. It looks at women’s roles and how they changed and strangely gained independence further during these times, they could go and work in other countries and start new lives even if the job opportunities were limited. It also discussed racism at the time as the colour of customers in Bartocci’s changes; this isn’t a subject at the heart of the book I did like its inclusion though as it would have happened at the time. In fact looking back with Eilis’ love interest being from an Italian family and Eilis not being an American in America different cultures is in a way a theme.

For me out of everything it was the prose and also the characters that really made the book the complete joy to read I found it. I liked Eilis though for me she was in a way a ‘nice and intrigued’ pair of eyes to watch a story through. It was characters like the scary domineering and gossiping Mrs Kelly who owned the corner shop and the fabulous Georgina, who I adored, and is Eilie’s partner in illness on one of the most horrendous boat crossings I have read… I did laugh though. With characters, plot and backdrops like this I would be amazed if you could fail to love this book.

In fact actually this is just the book I have been craving to read, and haven’t quite been able to find (not even in Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness but almost) for quite a while something I would rush to read the next bit of and get lost in all over again. I can’t wait to read more Toibin after the Man Booker long list, the only question is… where to start, what should I read of his next?

33 Comments

Filed under Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Man Booker, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

33 responses to “Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

  1. I am glad that you appreciated its subtlety and simplicity too, Simon. This was one that I read before the longlist was announced and I connected with it on an emotional level.
    I love how varied in tone the selection is this year. I don’t think that Brooklyn will hold up against some of the front-runners because it lacks the sheer scope and ambition that others possess, which is a pity.

    • I am not so sure on that one you know Claire. I think that the fact its so subtle and beautifully done it stands out from the others in a way. I am backing this as the dark horse.

      • That’s another thing that makes reading the longlist so much fun! I love the diversity of this year’s selection; there is so much to admire in the writing and all of it different yet worthy. I certainly don’t want the shortlist to be predictable with all of the big names on it.
        Brooklyn reminds me of The Little Stranger in a way, in its deceptiveness. Both have left me thinking and Brooklyn was certainly emotive for me. I read another review of it today (Shelf Life) and it’s one where my appreciation grows and grows so perhaps I am wrong, right enough and we’ll see it in a few weeks on the shortlist😉.

      • I am probably wrong Claire to be honest! I am hopeless choosing winning fiction – well maybe not hopeless more… rogue hahaha!

  2. This book is also on my TBR list. I have an affinity for character driven narratives written in eloquent prose. This truly sounds like a novel that will be right up my alley.

  3. I’m about 50 pages from the end of this one now, and I am utterly charmed by it. It has a lovely old-fashioned feel, and it does a nice job of putting you right there in the time and place with the characters. I loved, for example, how race is brought up but isn’t a central issues–that’s probably true to how a girl like Eilie would have experienced the issue.

    I’m hoping to finish it today. Can’t wait to see how it ends.

    • I look forward to your thoughts on the ending. I thought it was clever and it keeps you thinking. I can imagine a fair few readers will be slightly annoyed by the ending of this.

  4. I just loved this book, too! It was my first by Toibin and I can’t wait to read more. The Blackwater Lightship will be next.

  5. I found ‘Brooklyn’ a rewarding read too. I know exactly what you mean when you describe it as “subtle and simple”, though I would suggest that “deceptively simple” might be even closer to the mark. Toibin makes it look as though it was easy to write, when in reality I suspect this was not the case.

    I know what Teresa means when she says that it puts you “right there in the time and place”, although I found that it was the smaller places that it summons up most fully; Eilis’s home town in Ireland, her cabin on the boat to New York, the house she lodges in in Brooklyn and, on a slightly larger scale, the department store in which she works. I didn’t get that much sense of the district of Brooklyn, as the title might suggest. Not that I was disappointed by that. I don’t think that novels about city life should be obliged to be the thickness of a telephone directory and feature almost as many people. Dickensian epics can be great, but there is also a lot of pleasure to be add focusing on a small number of characters and their thoughts and feelings. This micro-level concentration reflects the way in which even those of us who live in crowded places will very often only interact meaningfully with a relatively small number of people. I suspect there is another reason for down-playing the scale and pace of big city life, in that I think we are meant to spot the continuities and similarities between small town Ireland and the somewhat closed society of the Irish expatriate community, at the same time as observing how Eilis grows in confidence as a result of her migration to the States.

    • “Deceptively simple” oh I like that expression and summisation of this novel – thats exactly it!

      I did feel I got to Know Brooklyn too though. Through the cultures (the Irish and the Italian), and the different settings (church, shared house, the shops, the college) and the different people (rich customers and coloured customers in the shop, homeless at Christmas dinners, Tony’s family) all this helped build a vision of the whole area.

  6. I love the way we both find very different things in the same book. I would describe this book as “subtle and simple” too, but I’m afraid this is a negative thing for me. I will be interested to see if it makes it on to the short list as I found it very average.

  7. justicejenniferreads

    i really want to read this now!

  8. Amy

    I am really looking forward to reading this book. I am currently living in Brooklyn and have been for many years so, of course, the title attracted me immediately. I favor good, strong characters and beautiful prose. Thank you for your lovely review. You have made me realize I need to buy this book the next time I am in a bookstore!

    Amy

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  17. nigelmcdowell

    Why is are the words “deceptively” and “simple” so often put together? I found the novel never “deceptive”, never “simple”, but rather a story of adventure, melancholy and dislocation, but rendered so elegantly, so precisely…out of all the books I’ve read in recent years, it gave me the most pleasure. Enjoyable, where so many novels are a slog! Have since read 3 more of Toibin’s stories…loving every one…

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  21. Read The Master, which is a marvel as well. Style reminds me somewhat of Somerset Maugham.

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