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 w