Monday, April 13, 2009

A Young Woman, Caught Between Two Worlds--Colm Toibin's Brooklyn

Brooklyn begins with Eilis, a young Irish woman, preparing to leave her small town in Ireland in the early 1950s to emigrate to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives in America, she is overwhelmed, by the size of New York, the different types of people, and her new life. As she slowly adapts to her dull job as a shop clerk and her night classes at a local college, she begins to feel comfortable in this new life and her life in Ireland feels distant and strange. She even meets and falls in love with Tony, a young Italian American. When Eilis is suddenly recalled to Ireland after a family tragedy, she is re-confronted with her old life and must choose, is she the old Eilis or the new? 

Although Brooklyn is a slow, quiet novel, and it took me a while to get into, in the end I loved this book. Toibin has a great way of capturing the everyday details of life and making them poignant and often beautiful. Nothing extraordinary happens in this book, but Eilis does have to make a huge decision that will alter the course of her entire life. The way Toibin presents this choice feels authentic without being overwrought, which is what makes this novel so good. In the end I was sad to see this novel finish, and I wished I could glimpse just a bit more of Eilis' world. 

The novel also does a suburb job of capturing the attitudes and prejudices of first and second generation immigrants in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The changes that are about to fundamentally change America are beginning to take route, and Toibin addresses them quietly, as subtle changes in the everyday lives of his characters. Toibin's attention to these issues made the novel feel very authentic, and added to its quiet charm.

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