Brooklyn: A Novel

Brooklyn: A Novel

3.4 167
by Colm Toibin

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Hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking, Colm Tóibín's sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following World War Two. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find


Hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking, Colm Tóibín's sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following World War Two. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find a job in the miserable Irish economy. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, a blond Italian from a big family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. He takes Eilis to Coney Island and Ebbets Field, and home to dinner in the two-room apartment he shares with his brothers and parents. He talks of having children who are Dodgers fans. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

By far Tóibín's most instantly engaging and emotionally resonant novel, Brooklyn will make readers fall in love with his gorgeous writing and spellbinding characters.

Editorial Reviews

Small towns everywhere can seem like stage sets in the theater of respectability. Sidewalks are washed, the facades are painted, the performers go to church in their Sunday best. But in fiction, such towns fester with whispery gossip, small betrayals, hidden hypocrisies, petty tyrannies, and calculated arrangements of everything from jobs to marriages. The residents could be living in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in the Republic of Ireland.

Enniscorthy is a real town (today's population: about 3,700), located on the River Slaney, dominated by St. Aidan's Cathedral. It's the homeplace of the fine Irish novelist Colm Toíbín and has inspired much of his fiction. But in his previous novel, The Master (2004), Toíbín gave us, to high critical applause, a portrait of Henry James and lived imaginatively in London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. In Brooklyn, he returns to Enniscorthy.

Toíbín's main character is a young woman named Eilis Lacey. She is probably 18, jobless when the story begins, studying accounting, living with her sister Rose, who is 30, and their mother. The mother is never named, appearing in the first and last acts of the story as "her mother." Eilis's three brothers have gone to England to work. Her father is dead. Rose is everything that Eilis is not: beautiful, confident, successful by the town's standards, a fixture at the local golf club on warm summer evenings and weekends. Her job supports Eilis and her mother, as do sporadic remittances from the three brothers.

Early on, Eilis is offered a Sunday job at a food shop run by a Miss Kelly. She accepts the offer, but her mother is not pleased. "That Miss Kelly," her mother said, "is as bad as her mother, and I heard from someone who worked there that that woman is evil incarnate."

In small towns, someone is always hearing from someone, particularly if the news is nasty. As long ago as 1918, an Irish writer named Brinsley MacNamara published a portrait of small-town vindictiveness called The Valley of the Squinting Windows and established a genre. In Toíbín's Enniscorthy, the windows still squint. Sexuality is rigidly policed. Even at a weekly dance, where young women arrive to be inspected by young men, there's a sense of a prevailing script. Eilis goes with a girlfriend, Nancy, and they discuss tactics in a diffident way. Nancy is appalled, noting the men on the far side of the room. She says, "They look like they are at a cattle mart." But George, the young man Nancy desires, finally asks her to dance. Eilis leaves alone.

A few days later Rose announces that a Father Flood, who was originally from Enniscorthy and was on his first trip home since before World War Two, was coming for tea. He had known the father of Eilis and Rose; their mother never heard of him, she says. But he comes for tea anyway. And then suggests that Eilis should try America. He could arrange the papers, a ticket, a job in Brooklyn, even a place to stay. "Parts of Brooklyn," the priest explains, "are just like Ireland. They're full of Irish." Her mother is silent. The usually voluble Rose offers no comment. Eilis understands what is being thought, but not said.

And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realized, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America.

The prospect fills her with anxiety.

Until now, Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town, all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets…Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared, and this, despite the fear it carried with it, gave her a feeling, or more a set of feelings, she thought she might experience in the days before her wedding…

But she goes to America, as if the journey had been decided by others. It has. The trip across in a third-class cabin is vividly described, full of vomiting, bleariness, anxiety. This is not mere seasickness; it's the emotional and physical equivalent of both childbirth and miscarriage, full of fear of the unknown. The gut-churning experience of immigrant homesickness has seldom been captured with such power. Eilis is helped by a tough, valiant older woman, who cracks open the locked bathroom with a nail file and starts cleaning the mess, all the while aching for a cigarette. She even helps Eilis on the morning of arrival, applying makeup, adjusting her clothes. Father Flood is waiting. Then it's into Brooklyn.

The scene on the ship is not typical of Toíbín's writing. He has said in interviews that he's a believer in Ernest Hemingway's dictum that "the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." So he writes sparely, demanding careful reading; often the deepest emotions are present in what is not said. This works very well with a passive character like Eilis, who never jumps into conversations, and who is not filled with large romantic longings she hopes will be realized in her Brooklyn exile. In Brooklyn, she has a full-time job. She enrolls at Brooklyn College to finish her accounting studies at night. She has a room in a boardinghouse run by another Irish woman who has no husband on the premises. The other boarders are all young women, most of them Irish too. Eilis accepts the routines of her Brooklyn life and does not protest against the tedium.

She doesn't seem to see much. I was 16 in that Brooklyn, but I don't recognize it in this novel. It's not clear where she lives, but it's near State Street, within walking distance of the shopping district along Fulton Street, where she works in a clothing store. It's probably what the real estate people now call Cobble Hill. My aunt Rose lived in Tompkins Place in Cobble Hill and took in male Irish boarders. There were boardinghouses, almost all for men, in other neighborhoods too. And many neighborhoods, including mine (now named the South Slope), resembled urban hamlets. They were still named for parishes (Holy Name, Immaculate Heart, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, etc.), and some of the people were as trapped in their limited ways as they might have been in Enniscorthy. The young men at least had the Army or Navy to break the patterns, and the G.I. Bill would enable many of them to leave forever. The women didn't have such options.

But Eilis seems to lack curiosity beyond her own essential places, and that is probably Toíbín's intention. The crude version: you can take the girl out of Enniscorthy, but you can't take Enniscorthy out of the girl. Brooklyn in those years was home to almost three million people, bound together by a daily newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle, the subway system, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Brooklyn Democratic machine. The Korean War was raging, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 70,000 men in three shifts. You'd know none of this from Eilis. Later in the novel, a young, blond Italian man named Tony does take her to Ebbets Field, and she loves his passion for baseball, our secular religion, but she hasn't a clue about the game.

She is also generally immune to the beauties of Brooklyn: the slanting Edward Hopper light, the handsome brownstones, the low sky with its spectacular sunsets, the ridge across Prospect Park, the views of the harbor and the Manhattan skyline beyond (in her part of Brooklyn, most men were engaged in the commerce of the harbor, as longshoremen, tugboat captains, truck drivers carting waterborne goods to the markets). She does make it to Coney Island with Tony, and there the stifled erotic begins to stir. But the rest of Brooklyn remains a blank.

Almost certainly this blankness is purposeful, for in his journalism and travel writing Toíbín has a fine sense of place. His blank spaces work here like certain kinds of music. They urge us to fill them in with what we know, or remember. After The Master, which is muscular and full of large, complex feelings, this is chamber music. It is also a love story, told in small incremental moments. In the third act, after the romance with Tony turns more serious, Eilis is called back to Enniscorthy when her sister suddenly dies. She is now bound to Tony, even marries him in a civil ceremony, and promises to return. Then slowly, back in the small town, she is tempted never to return to America. The pull of the familiar, the place with limits and certainties, begins to work it powers on her. A haughty young man from that first dance is attracted to her. She is attracted to him. In the eyes of the Church, after all, a civil ceremony is meaningless.

The novel turns on her decision, made by herself and for herself. Two countries, and two men, and two possible lives. She agonizes, she weeps. But when she decides at last, this reader uttered a melancholy cheer. For Eilis Lacey, and for Colm Toíbín. --Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill is the author of North River, Forever, Downtown, A Drinking Life, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.

Jonathan Yardley
Brooklyn is a modest novel, but it has heft. The portrait Toibin paints of Brooklyn in the early '50s is affectionate but scarcely dewy-eyed; Eilis encounters discrimination in various forms—against Italians, against blacks, against Jews, against lower-class Irish—and finds Manhattan more intimidating than alluring. Toibin's prose is graceful but never showy, and his characters are uniformly interesting and believable. As a study of the quest for home and the difficulty of figuring out where it really is, Brooklyn has a universality that goes far beyond the specific details of Eilis's struggle.
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
Colm Toibin…is an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions…In tracking the experience, at the remove of half a century, of a girl as unsophisticated and simple as Eilis—a girl who permits herself no extremes of temperament, who accords herself no right to self-assertion—Toibin exercises sustained subtlety and touching respect. He shows no condescension for Eilis's passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in her journal…In Brooklyn, Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly


Reviewed by Maureen Howard

Colm Tóibín's engaging new novel, Brooklyn, will not bring to mind the fashionable borough of recent years nor Bed-Stuy beleaguered with the troubles of a Saturday night. Tóibín has revived the Brooklyn of an Irish-Catholic parish in the '50s, a setting appropriate to the narrow life of Eilis Lacey. Before Eilis ships out for a decent job in America, her village life is sketched in detail. The shops, pub, the hoity-toity and plainspoken people of Enniscorthy have such appeal on the page, it does seem a shame to leave. But how will we share the girl's longing for home, if home is not a gabby presence in her émigré tale? Tóibín's maneuvers draw us to the bright girl with a gift for numbers. With a keen eye, Eilis surveys her lonely, steady-on life: her job in the dry goods store, the rules and regulations of her rooming house-ladies only. The competitive hustle at the parish dances are so like the ones back home-it's something of a wonder I did not give up on the gentle tattle of her story, run a Netflix of the feline power struggle in Claire Booth Luce's The Women. Tóibín rescues his homesick shopgirl from narrow concerns, gives her a stop-by at Brooklyn College, a night course in commercial law. Her instructor is Joshua Rosenblum. Buying his book, the shopkeeper informs her, "At least we did that, we got Rosenblum out."

"You mean in the war?"

His reply when she asks again: "In the holocaust, in the churben."

The scene is eerie, falsely naïve. We may accept what a village girl from Ireland,which remained neutral during the war, may not have known, but Tóibín's delivery of the racial and ethnic discoveries of a clueless young woman are disconcerting. Eilis wonders if she should write home about the Jews, the Poles, the Italians she encounters, but shouldn't the novelist in pursuing those postwar years in Brooklyn, in the Irish enclave of the generous Father Flood, take the mike? The Irish vets I knew when I came to New York in the early '50s had been to that war; at least two I raised a glass with at the White Horse were from Brooklyn. When the stage is set for the love story, slowly and carefully as befits his serious girl, Tóibín is splendidly in control of Eilis's and Tony's courtship. He's Italian, you see, of a poor, caring family. I wanted to cast Brooklyn, with Rosalind Russell perfect for Rose, the sporty elder sister left to her career in Ireland. Can we get Philip Seymour Hoffman into that cassock again? J. Carol Naish, he played homeboy Italian, not the mob. I give away nothing in telling that the possibility of Eilis reclaiming an authentic and spirited life in Ireland turns Brooklyn into a stirring and satisfying moral tale. Tóibín, author of The Master, a fine-tuned novel on the lonely last years of Henry James, revisits, diminuendo, the wrenching finale of The Portrait of a Lady. What the future holds for Eilis in America is nothing like Isabel Archer's return to the morally corrupt Osmond. The decent fellow awaits. Will she be doomed to a tract house of the soul on Long Island? I hear John McCormick take the high note-alone in the gloaming with the shadows of the past-as Tóibín's good girl contemplates the lost promise of Brooklyn.

Maureen Howard's The Rags of Time, the last season of her quartet of novels based on the four seasons, will be published by Viking in October.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This latest from Tóibín (The Master) begins in the southwestern Ireland town of Enniscorthy during the early 1950s, where dutiful daughter, doting sister, and aspiring bookkeeper Eilis Lacey lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. Her brothers have long since left Ireland to seek work in England, and Eilis herself soon departs for Brooklyn, NY. Once there, she attempts to master living and working in a strange land and to quell an acute and threatening loneliness. Initially friendless and of few means, Eilis gradually embraces new freedoms. She excels in work and school, falls in love, and begins to imagine a life in America. When tragedy strikes in Enniscorthy, however, Eilis returns to discover the hopes and aspirations once beyond her grasp are now hers for the taking. Tóibín conveys Eilis's transformative struggles with an aching lyricism reminiscent of the mature Henry James and ultimately confers upon his readers a sort of grace that illuminates the opportunities for tenderness in our lives. Both more accessible and more sublime than his previous works, this is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ1/09.]
—J. Greg Matthews

Kirkus Reviews
This plaintive sixth novel from the Booker-nominated Irish author (Mothers and Sons, 2008, etc.) is both akin to his earlier fiction and a somewhat surprising hybrid. T-ib'n's treatment of the early adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a quiet girl from the town of Enniscorthy who accepts a kindly priest's sponsorship to work and live in America, is characterized by a scrupulously precise domestic realism reminiscent of the sentimental bestsellers of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber and Betty Smith (in her beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But as Eilis both falters and matures abroad, something more interesting takes shape. T-ib'n fashions a compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds, unsure almost until the novel's final page where her obligations and affections truly reside. Several deft episodes and set pieces bring Eilis to convincing life: her timid acts of submission, while still living at home, to her extroverted, vibrant older sister Rose; the ordeal of third-class passenger status aboard ship (surely seasickness has never been presented more graphically); her second-class status among postwar Brooklyn's roiling motley populace, and at the women's boarding house where she's virtually a non-person; and the exuberant liberation sparked by her romance with handsome plumber Tony Fiorello, whose colorful family contrasts brashly with Eilis's own dour and scattered one. T-ib'n is adept at suggestive understatement, best displayed in lucid portrayals of cultural interaction and conflict in a fledgling America still defining itself; and notably in a beautiful account of Eilis's first sexual experience with Tony (whom she'll soon wed), revealed as the act of a girl who knows she mustfully become a woman in order to shoulder the burdens descending on her. And descend they do, as a grievous family loss reshapes Eilis's future (literally) again and again. A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of T-ib'n's ever-increasing skills and range. Author tour to Boston, New York, Princeton, N.J., San Francisco

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Eilis went to midnight mass with Mrs. Kehoe and Miss Keegan, discovering on the way home that Mrs. Kehoe was among the parishioners who were roasting a turkey and potatoes and boiling a ham for Father Flood, who had arranged for it all to be collected at twelve.

"It's like the war," Mrs. Kehoe said. "Feeding the army. Has to be done like clockwork. I'll carve what our own small needs will be from the turkey, the biggest one I could get, it'll be six hours in the oven, before I send it off. And we'll eat, just the four of us, myself, Miss McAdam, Miss Heffernan and Miss Keegan here, as soon as the turkey is off our hands. And if there's anything left over, we'll save it for you, Eilis."

By nine o'clock Eilis was in the parish hall peeling vegetables in the big kitchen at the back. There were women working beside her whom she had never met before, all of them older than she, some with faint American accents but all of Irish origin. Most of them were just here for this part of the morning, she was told, before going home to feed their families. Soon it became clear that two women were in charge. When Father Flood arrived he introduced Eilis to them.

"They are the Miss Murphys from Arklow," he said. "Though we won't hold that against them."

The two Miss Murphys laughed. They were tall, cheerfullooking women in their fifties.

"It'll be just the three of us," one of them said, "here all day. The other helpers will come and go."

"We're the ones with no homes to go to," the other Miss Murphy said and smiled.

"Now, we'll feed them in sets of twenty," her sister said.

"Each of us prepares sixty-five dinners, it might even be more, in three sittings. I'm in Father Flood's ownkitchen and the two of you are here in the hall. As soon as a turkey arrives, or when the ones we have cooking upstairs are ready, Father Flood will attack them and the hams and carve them. The oven here is just for keeping things hot. For an hour people will bring us turkeys and hams and roast potatoes and the thing is to have vegetables cooked and hot and ready to be served."

"Rough and ready might be a better way of putting it," the other Miss Murphy interrupted.

"But we have plenty of soup and stout for them while they're waiting. They're very nice, all of them."

"They don't mind waiting, and if they do, they don't say."

"Are they all men?" Eilis asked.

"A few couples come because she is too old to cook, or they're too lonely, or whatever, but the rest are men," Miss Murphy said. "And they love the company and it's Irish food, you know, proper stuffing and roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts boiled to death." She smiled at Eilis and shook her head and sighed.

As soon as ten o'clock mass was over people began to call by. Father Flood had filled one of the tables with glasses and bottles of lemonade and sweets for the children. He made everyone who came in, including women with fresh hairdos, put on a paper hat. Thus as the men began to arrive to spend all of Christmas Day in the hall they were barely noticed among the crowd. It was only later, after midday, when the visitors began to disperse, that they could be seen clearly, some of them sitting alone with a bottle of stout in front of them, others huddled in groups, many of them stubbornly still wearing cloth caps instead of paper hats.

The Miss Murphys were anxious for the men who came first to gather at one or two of the long tables, enough to make a group who could be served soon with bowls of soup so that the bowls could be washed and used again by the next group. As Eilis, on instructions, went out to encourage the men to sit down at the top table nearest to the kitchen, she observed coming into the hall a tall man with a slight stoop; he was wearing a cap low over his forehead and an old brown overcoat with a scarf at the neck. She paused for a moment and stared at him.

He stood still as soon as he had closed the main door behind him, and it was the way he took in the hall, surveying the scene with shyness and a sort of mild delight, that made Eilis sure, for one moment, that her father had come into her presence. She felt as though she should move towards him as she saw him hesitantly opening his overcoat and loosening his scarf. It was how he stood, taking full slow possession of the room, searching almost shyly for the place where he might be most comfortable and at ease, or looking around carefully to see if he knew anybody. As she realized that it could not be him, that she was dreaming, he took off his cap and she saw that the man did not look like her father at all. She glanced around her, embarrassed, hoping that no one had noticed her. It was something, she thought, that she could tell no one, that she had imagined for an instant that she had seen her father, who was, she remembered quickly, dead for four years.

Although the first table had not been filled, she turned and went back to the kitchen and set about checking the number of plates for the first serving, even though she knew she had the right number, and then lifting the lid of the huge saucepan to check if the Brussels sprouts were boiling, even though she knew that the water was not hot enough yet. When one of the Miss Murphys asked her if the nearest table had been filled up and if every man had a glass of stout, Eilis turned and said that she had done her best to move the men to the tables but maybe Miss Murphy could do better. She tried to smile, hoping that Miss Murphy did not notice anything strange.

For the next two hours she was busy, piling food on to plates, carrying them out two at a time. Father Flood carved turkeys and hams as they arrived, piling stuffing and roast potatoes into bowls. For a while, one Miss Murphy devoted herself entirely to washing up and drying and cleaning and clearing space as her sister and Eilis served the men, making sure to leave nothing out — turkey, ham, stuffing, roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts — and making sure in their haste not to give anyone too much or too little.

"There's plenty of food now, so don't worry," Father Flood shouted, "but no more than three potatoes a head and go easy on the stuffing."

When they had enough meat carved, he went outside and busied himself opening more bottles of stout.

At first the men seemed shabby to Eilis and she noticed body odours from a good number of them. As they sat down and drank their stout waiting for the soup or the food, she could not believe there were so many of them, some of them so poor-looking and so old, but even the younger ones had bad teeth and appeared worn down. Many were still smoking, even as the soup came. She did her best to be polite to them.

She observed a change in them soon, however, as they began to talk to each other or shout greetings down the table or enter into low, intense conversations. At first they had reminded her of men who sat on the bridge in Enniscorthy or gathered at the seat at Arnold's Cross or the Louse Bank by the Slaney, or men from the County Home, or men from the town who drank too much. But by the time she served them and they turned to thank her, they seemed more like her father and his brothers in the way they spoke or smiled, the toughness in their faces softened by shyness, what had appeared stubborn or hard now strangely tender. As she served the man she had thought was her father, she looked at him carefully, amazed at how little he actually resembled him, as though it had been a trick of the light or something she had completely imagined. She was surprised also to find that he was talking to the man beside him in Irish.

"This was the miracle of the turkey and the ham," Miss Murphy said to Father Flood when large plates of second helpings had been left on all the tables.

"Brooklyn-style," her sister said.

"I'm glad it's trifle now," she added, "and not plum pudding and we don't have to worry about keeping it hot."

"Wouldn't you think they'd take off their caps when they are eating?" her sister asked. "Don't they know they're in America?"

"We have no rules here," Father Flood said. "And they can smoke and drink all they like. If we can get them all home safely, that's the main thing. We always have a few a bit too under the weather to go home."

"Too drunk," one Miss Murphy said.

"Ah, on Christmas Day we call it under the weather, and I have a rake of beds made up for them in my own house," Father Flood said.

"What we'll do now is have our own dinner," Miss Murphy said. "And I'll set the table and I've kept a nice dinner for each of us hot and everything."

"Well, I was wondering if we were going to eat at all," Eilis said.

"Poor Eilis. She's starving. Will you look at her?"

"Should we not serve the trifle first?" Eilis asked.

"No, we'll wait," Father Flood said. "It'll stretch the day out."

By the time they were removing the trifle dishes, the hall was a mass of smoke and animated talk. Men sat in groups with one or two standing behind them; others moved from group to group, some with bottles of whiskey in brown paper bags that they passed around. When all the cleaning of the kitchen and the filling of garbage cans had been completed, Father Flood suggested that they go into the hall and join the men for a drink. Some visitors had arrived, including a few women, and Eilis thought, as she sat down with a glass of sherry in her hand, that it could have been a parish hall anywhere in Ireland on the night of a concert or a wedding when the young people were all elsewhere dancing or standing at the bar.

After a while Eilis noticed that two men had taken out fiddlesand another a small accordion; they had found a corner and wereplaying as a few others stood around and listened. Father Floodwas moving about the hall with a notebook now, writing downnames and addresses and nodding as old men spoke to him. Aftera while he clapped his hands and called for silence but it took afew minutes before he could get everyone's attention.

"I don't want to interrupt the proceedings," he said, "but we'd like to thank a nice girl from Enniscorthy and two nice women from Arklow for their hard day's work."

There was a round of applause.

"And, as a way of thanking them, there's one great singer in this hall and we're delighted to see him this year again."

He pointed to the man whom Eilis had mistaken for her father. He was sitting away from Eilis and Father Flood, but he stood up when his name was called and walked quietly towards them. He stood with his back to the wall so that everyone could see him.

"That man," Miss Murphy whispered to Eilis, "has made LPs."

When Eilis looked up the man was signalling to her. He wanted her, it seemed, to come and stand with him. It struck her for a second that he might want her to sing so she shook her head, but he kept beckoning and people began to turn and look at her; she felt that she had no choice but to leave her seat and approach him. She could not think why he wanted her. As she came close she saw how bad his teeth were.

He did not greet her or acknowledge her arrival but closed his eyes and reached his hand towards hers and held it. The skin on the palm of his hand was soft. He gripped her hand tightly and began to move it in a faint circular motion as he started to sing. His voice was loud and strong and nasal; the Irish he sang in, she thought, must be Connemara Irish because she remembered one teacher from Galway in the Mercy Convent who had that accent. He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words — "Má bhíonn tú liom, a stóirín mo chroí" — and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength of his voice and the confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair.

As the night wore on, some of the men fell asleep or had to be helped to the toilet. The two Miss Murphys made pots of tea and there was Christmas cake. Once the singing ended some of the men found their coats and came up to thank Father Flood and the Miss Murphys and Eilis, wishing them a happy Christmas before setting out into the night.

When most of the men had left and several who remained seemed to be very drunk, Father Flood told Eilis that she could go if she wanted and he would ask the Miss Murphys to accompany her to Mrs. Kehoe's house. Eilis said no, she was used to walking home alone, and it would in any case, she said, be a quiet night. She shook hands with the two Miss Murphys and with Father Flood and wished each of them a happy Christmas before she set out to walk through the dark, empty streets of Brooklyn. She would, she thought, go straight to her room and avoid the kitchen. She wanted to lie on the bed and go over everything that had happened before falling asleep.

Copyright © 2009 by Colm Tóibín

Meet the Author

Colm Tóibín is the author of seven novels, including The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary, and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections. Three times shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Brief Biography

Dublin, Ireland
Date of Birth:
May 30, 1955
Place of Birth:
Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history

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Brooklyn 3.4 out of 5 based on 3 ratings. 167 reviews.
MJinPA More than 1 year ago
This Colm Toibin novel is one of the best books I have ever read. I love the delicate, thoughtful prose. The dialogue - such a hard thing for most writers to pull off - feels very real, too, as does the depiction of the immigrant experience. Slowly, patiently, and very deliberately, Toibin drew me in by narrating from protagonist Eilis' point of view and even reviewing previously-described events from Eilis' perspective. I was lulled into that state you may associate with a good movie: as you become attached to the characters, your stake in a particular sort of ending increases. And herein lies Toibin's skill: he drew me in *twice* -- tricked me with no trickery -- such that his quietly-worded ending delivered me an indescribably powerful punch. Unbelievable.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
This is a simple and gentle story about a young woman's immigration to New York from Ireland in the years after WWII. Much of the novel contains her personal thoughts and her analyzing her future and decisions and life in general. It has an easy pace with lots of descriptive elements and a vast array of characters. I really wanted to love this book, but it just seemed oversimplified. I think virtually anyone could have thought up the plot if they were given the basic elements (girl alone in big city, first real job, meeting new people, family crisis). In fact, at one point it felt like an After School Special. While Toibin depicts the female brain very well in some areas, there are other things that don't ring true. For example, other than her work and classes, the main character seems to have no curiousity about the world in general, or about the exciting new country she has come to. In subjects such as racism and the Holocaust, not only does she know nothing but she has no interest in learning more. And while we hear much of her thoughts, some subjects she doesn't even visit mentally: when her female boss makes a sexual pass at her, she feels uncomfortable but never ponders it again. Yet she ponders so much more trivial stuff all the time throughout the book (what to wear or where to eat) . Additionally, while there are some tragic events, overall there doesn't seem to be enough conflict to make the story interesting. All the other characters are almost too good to be true, some crusty or cranky but all of them (excepting Miss Kelly) are big hearted and generous. Money is never really an issue, and things go amazingly smooth for such a huge life change. Again, that seems incredibly unrealistic. And the strange behavior of her fiance's moodiness, her mother's unpleasantness, and her landlady's suspicions are never really explored. I intend to read more of his work (I have ordered the Blackwater Lightship) and I hope things become a bit more complex and realistic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree with others that this novel was a bit drawnout. It was a nice story but it took too long to tell in my honest opinion. It left me wanting just a little more. Read this after you finish the other books on your list.
CelticReader More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed "Brooklyn" a great deal. The character of Eilis was complex in personality; the story was well-written and it drew me in. The ending was not quite what I expected (a good thing!) The cultural issues of post-WWII Ireland and the US rang true as well. A lovely read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not at all a fan of this book, disappointing considering the reviews on the author. The writing style was fine, however the plot was fairly uninteresting, the main character impossibly naive, drab and without a much of a mind of her own... she is molested by another woman and once the situation is over, she thinks nothing more of it; she has also never heard of the Halocaust. This is not a "cute" innocence but rather completly frustrating. The ending wraps up too quickly and will leave you unsatisfied. My book club chose this book and another book by an Irish author as we suspected they might pair well together and this one received low reviews from us all, mainly for the reasons above.
anonymousMK More than 1 year ago
"Brooklyn" gives the impression of being a good short story expanded into a dull novel. The first half of the book is merely a drawn out, rigidly chronological setting up of the second half. The characters are thinly drawn. Even the main character, the very passive Eilis, from whose point of view the story is told, remains a cipher who sort of sleepwalks into situations. The scenes of Ireland in the 1950s are the strongest part of the novel. This book is an easy read. So much so that at times it seems like something more suitable for the YA market. I am perplexed at the critical praise this novel received.
BennNB More than 1 year ago
Brooklyn is a quietly gripping story of a young woman finding her way through the challenges to her identity brought by an unchosen immigration from Ireland. Loss, uncertainty, the personal task of building a meaningful life in unfamiliar circumstances are managed with little guidance beyond her personal reflection - portrayed elegantly and believably by Toibin. The author's compassion for all of the characters gives this personal tale a sense of privileged peeking into the rich interior life of people who worked to live a life they themselves could respect. Also, Toibin crafted the story such that surprise can catch you as you look back at Ireland from the cold streets of Brooklyn.
LorraineWA More than 1 year ago
I have to laugh a little as I write this review. I liked the book, enjoyed reading it, but still do now know why. Maybe this is what a good writer can do. Write on seemingly nothing and make it seem like something. The time and places (Ireland and Brooklyn) were not particularly interesting nor were the characters. None of them really did anything special except live their daily lives which were not interesting either. There you have it.
MarinaD1 More than 1 year ago
Colm is a very good writer but this is a little tedious in places. Interesting details but if he were a woman, this would be classified and mrketed as chicklit
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book knowing what a great writer Colm Toibin is but upon reading I am disappointed. The story is very readable and the characters settings and history real yet so lightly dealt with. Through the eyes of the main character Eilis we see her small Irish town, its way of life and inhabitants including her mother, sister, girlfriends and employer. She then is sent to Brooklyn and again we are shown her life of work, night classes, church dances, boarding house, friends, and "romance" but nothing really strikes deep. Things happen, people come and go and Eilis seems in a fog. I was rather insulted that Toibin wrote her as how else can I say it, stupid. I know an immigrant woman's choices were limited in that time period but this girl had no personality or interests. She just went with the flow in a deliberate almost plodding way. I think what bothers me most is that there is so much that could have been dealt with and wasn't. Background about her professor, landlady, priest, sister, mother and even the homeless singer would have made this a meaty book of personalities, cultures and age to get into. They say less is more but in this book for me, it just wasn't enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading the story.. Very heartwarming !!
KenCady More than 1 year ago
There really wasn't much about Brooklyn in this novel, at least not enough for it to merit the title. As it is, it is a love story about an immigrant girl who enjoys her new home in America, but then is forced to return to Ireland after a death in the family. What I liked about the book stopped at this point and unnecessary confusion reigned from that point on. Little of what happened in Ireland made sense given what had preceded it. Other than some location material, and Dodger talk, if you come to this book expecting to revisit Fulton Street and an older Brooklyn, there is no nostalgia here as Brooklyn is but a minor character.
AvidreaderHG More than 1 year ago
This was the first Colm Toibin book I read. Since I finished it, I have bought three others and already read two of them - all in the span of three weeks. His writing flows so easily and you want to read it to get to the end but you don't really want it to end. In this book you really feel you are in the neighborhoods where the characters "live" during the 1950s and you are observing every move they make. The settings are realistic and wonderfully described, the dialogue is genuine, the characters are likable. I would highly recommend it as an introduction to Toibin's writing and suggest readers consider his other books as well such as The Blackwater Lightship and The Heather Blazing - both as enjoyable as Brooklyn and taking place in now familiar Irish towns.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The whole time i was reading this it felt like I had picked up the book at a garage sale the old lady down the street was having. Nice story but the very beginning and very end were much better than the long mind numbing middle.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book a few years ago and thought it was wonderful. If you like irish immigrant stories you will love it. Really a surprise ending, just loved the whole book. Takes place in the 50's. Its so worth the read and crosses between brooklyn and ireland.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It was a quick read but I an unclear what the point was. I was unable to care about any of the characters because they were all so flat and one sided. Some intersting characters were introduced but were then dropped. The main character was never really passionate about anything just let things happen to her. The end was simply dissappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just finished this book and loved the way it was written. The characters were well developed, and very lifelike. Eilis was both likable and easy to hate as she wavered between one man and the other, unable and unwilling to make up her mind which life she wanted. However, the ending left me flat. She may have done the right thing, but I wanted more detail as to what happened after.
GrammiePoet More than 1 year ago
This is the story of a young Irish woman who emigrates to Brooklyn where she find a job and then marries a man who is not Irish. She travels to Ireland for a visit, considers staying there but ultimately realizes what she must do. This book is full of personalities - the village residents, the mother, the sister, and the boys. There are surprises and twists and turns. It's a satisfying read, especially for those fascinated by immigrant stories.
Pierce Harman More than 1 year ago
Descriptions here of the emotional life at once supremely tender and unsentimental. The work of a masterful hand.
Justsooze More than 1 year ago
"Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" gently draws the reader into the life of a young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey. There is little work in post World War II Ireland. Her two older brothers had previously been forced to move to England to find work and due to the encouragement of her beloved older sister, Rose, and the sponsorship of a visiting priest from America, Eilis leaves the home she shares with Rose and their widowed mother and travels from a small town in Ireland to seek employment in Brooklyn. What I found most interesting was Eilis' gradual immersion into life in America, which was so different from the life she left behind. Brooklyn truly proves to be the land of opportunity for Eilis. She lives in a boarding house owned by an Irishwoman, finds work at a local department store and attends classes in bookkeeping at night. She meets a young Italian man, Tony, who introduces her to more of life in America. When a tragedy forces her to return to Ireland, she has to decide where her future lies. So much more than just the story of a young immigrant girl becoming an independent woman, Brooklyn itself, and the complexity, diversity and opportunity found there almost seems to be a character in the book."
eliseIL More than 1 year ago
Bland. The stoicism of the characters was reflected in the writing. I found it hard to find any connection to the characters, hard to follow Eilis' emotions and felt her constant desire to be alone might have been a mental issue. The story itself has been done before, numerous times. I think it's done better when the reader can sympathize with the new immigrant's struggle. It was a decent story that may start a good book club conversation, but I wouldn't recommend it to Jane Doe looking for a book.
DawnHS More than 1 year ago
Although the plot was original, and the writing craftsman-like, I couldn't care about any of the characters, or what happened to them. So the novel ultimately fails its most important test: making the reader relate to the characters. I don't recommend this book.
redheadedreaderMG More than 1 year ago
The story was a very sweet, coming of age book.. the main character evolved as the story went on.. an easy, enjoyable read.
lbmii More than 1 year ago
Not sure what all the hype is about. I found the characters dry and one sided. There were many characters brought in for a very small amount of time that didn't seem to have purpose. The city of Chicago, IL chose it as their ONE city ONE read book for 2010 and I was highly disappointed.
DebandRaven More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed reading this book. Colm Toibin's words made me feel like I was the main character. The only critism I have, was wanting more. I felt the story didn't have enough of an ending. This was a great book for a rainy day and could be finished in a day.