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.
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?