Scribner. 2015. 288 pages.
Reviewed by Spencer Hyde
I was at home when I finished Tóibín’s novel, but I didn’t feel at home. There was this odd sense of movement, yet I could not place the uncanny feeling. As the weeks rolled on, I realized the soft, delicate memories portrayed in the novel were starting to settle in—at last. I was moved profoundly by the sense of home, the sense of family, of heritage, of memory, of love.
Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn is a smoothly paced, gentle narrative of Eilis Lacey’s search for a home. Born into a working-class family in Ireland, Eilis lives a quiet life in the radiant presence of her sister Rose. Not finding enough in Ireland to intrigue her quick, industrious mind, Eilis takes an opportunity granted her by the kindness of her mother and Rose. Father Flood, a friend of Rose, offers to sponsor Eilis in New York—grand 1950s in the United States, the stuff of American dreamers.
The beauty of Tóibín’s portrayal of the American Dream has to do with the way memory and family uncharacteristically decide a character’s destiny. Though the narrative begins in Eilis’ small Irish home, Tóibín deftly incorporates memory in each section to further the centrality of family in the novel—whether it be Eilis’ makeshift family in the boardinghouse in New York with busybody Mrs. Madge Kehoe, or the family she can only visit in memory as they come to stand an ocean apart. Milan Kundera speaks of this motive to render memory when he says, “A writer must let the reader know a character’s past, because that is where all the motives for his present behavior are located.”
So why is it so easy to relate to Eilis Lacey? Why is she so memorable? I often finish a novel and forget the life cycle of the protagonist shortly thereafter, only to hold on to specific moments or ideas or character traits. However, Brooklyn leaves the reader significantly invested in the decisions of Eilis, and how those might play out. For me, never has a character carried beyond the page as Eilis has—an Irish immigrant in search of a home, the reader equally invested in finding that home. And one reason Tóibín continues to find significant (and well deserved) recognition comes not from his portrayal of Eilis and her journey alone, but his ability to make a background, familial character like Rose equally significant and weighty.
In Italo Calvino’s essay “Quickness,” he says, “Everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.” This is significant in Brooklyn, for what seems light in Ireland becomes an unbearable weight when in New York. Likewise, moments with Italian-American Tony on the dance floor or listening to Tony talk baseball with Father Flood become much more significant when Eilis returns to Ireland, and can only revisit those moments through the powers of recall. And yet, the love between Eilis and Tony stands apart from the more resonant (and narratively significant) love between Eilis and Rose—something I consider oft-overlooked in other reviews.
These dualities (the familial and non) make this novel a beautiful portrait of multiple complex and developed characters, but even more importantly, these dualities bring true weight to the lightness of home. Memory scholar Paul Ricoeur states, “The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone. In this, memory is re-presentation, in the twofold sense of re-: turning back, anew.”
Colm Tóibín shows us a world where the American Dream is equally as weighty as the Irish Dream—where things over and gone, family dead and longed for, and places lived in and left are always present in the memories of Eilis Lacey. Yet, we only learn the true weight of a place, of a friendship, of a relationship, of a family, when it awaits our protagonist across the Atlantic. As readers we are left with Eilis in the end, questioning when (or if) we should turn back and board that transatlantic liner—we are left wondering if we are finally home.