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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

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Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Brooklyn, just across the river from New York City, is today the hip place to live. Those who cannot afford the rents in New York City, or who just want to be in the new cool neigbourhood, are changing the face of Brooklyn and giving the neglected city an exciting new life.

Brooklyn is also the title of the new novel by Colm Toibin, garnering glowing reviews in the New York Times and other papers.

Colm Toibin is an Irish writer, who makes his home in Dublin, Ireland but this spring he was in the United States teaching at Princeton, and living in a rented apartment in New York’s East Village. His is a recognizable face – the New York Times showed a photograph of an extremely handsome 16 year old Toibin, now, at the age of 53, his face has the sculptured lines of an age worn boxer, but I suspect it is still that of an attractive man. Colm Toibin describes himself as being “out of context” in New York and he has shown us that this is also how his character Eilis Lacey feels in Brooklyn.

Eilis Lacey, our heroine, is a young woman who has come to Brooklyn, in the early 1950’s, at the insistence of her family back home, to find work. The Parish Priest, a family friend, who has sponsored her and assisted in finding her a job. Eilis lives in a boarding house, run by an Irish woman, and at first she finds the novelty of the new world and her new job distracting enough that she is not homesick. Eilis marvels at how warm the house is – the heat left on all night! But she also notices that the food has not the taste of home. We see Eilis as she trains as shop girl, with Brooklyn changing and Negro Women moving into the neighbourhood. The Italian family who owns the department store where Eilis works are determined to accept the changes and make their new customers feel as welcome as those who have shopped there before. It is a fascinating picture of a changing world.

When the homesickness does come Eilis is devastated – Toibin feels it himself and he knows exactly how Eilis would feel. Although, unlike Toibin, Eilis does not expect that she will ever see Ireland again.

Meeting a young Italian, Tony, definitely helps Eilis begin to make a life for herself in Brooklyn. Eilis and Tony are a good match – he is fun loving but sympathetic to Eilis’ seriousness. They are both determined to be successful – Eilis taking accounting courses at night school, and Tony buying property on Long Island with his brothers. Tony himself a plumber, one brother an electrician, another a builder – you can just see the future for these guys as they plan to build five houses on the Long Island property.

Eilis and Tony are both such nice young people – but I felt myself wondering, as does Eilis, if she is being too quick to let the future decide that she will be a wife and mother – even if she can help out in the family business with her bookkeeping skills.

A sudden death in Ireland may change all that. Eilis leaves for Ireland – promising to return, but the longer she is away the farther – and more unreal – her life in Brooklyn becomes. She knows she will have to decide where to make her home – and with whom. This longing for home is a recurring theme in Tobin’s novels – and knowing that the “ideal” never exists. Home is not necessarily where you come from – it is where you choose to make it. And that is the choice facing Eilis as this novel concludes.

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