Brooklyn: Tale of Youthful Abandon and the Meaning of Home Fails to Pop and Shine

Colm Toibin is an internationally known and respected author. He won the 2006 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Master, his fictional portrayal of writer Henry James, and even served on the jury of Canada's 2008 Giller prize.

That said, Brooklyn is not a great novel.

Have no doubt, it is fine in many ways - the prose is fluid, understated and deft. While some fledging writers will outdo themselves to describe the colour and complexion of every character, their preference for cereal or toast, not to mention their strange sexual preferences/psychological problems/eccentricities, Toibin keeps detail understated and emotion underground. When emotion does surface, the effect is like being caught in constant eddies, a result of the confluence of repressed fears.

For example, Eilis, the main character, an Irish girl who faces traveling to Brooklyn (US) to find the secretarial work that eludes her in her home country, narrates:
The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in thsese familiar streets and come to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
 The problem, simply, with Brooklyn that it is ill-realized as a living, breathing creature. The prose is well executed in style, the length is appropriate (no meanderings are indulged, the plot is structured just so), and nothing is too audacious. Yet, nothing is quite right.

Eilis, though I sympathized with her fears about leaving her home (and its suffocating constrictions) and reestablishing herself, she was not fleshed out much past this point. She faces choices and consequences but we are given no real indication of how she has changed/evolved. Devilish and fun females like her free-spirited sister Rose or Eilis' lascivious co-worker Miss Fortini trip past the horizon but aren't fully woven in and thus we lose much of their flavour. Even 1950's immigrant-populated Brooklyn fails to pop and shine. Eilis faces a major decision at the end but I found I wasn't rooting for either choice as I felt I knew neither the person making the choice nor those attached to her options.

Eilis' tale of growing up, youthful abandon and all that home is to us isn't terrible but we should expect more from a literary great like Toibin.

Brooklyn/ Colm Toibin / McClelland & Stewart / HC, 2009

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