I’ve heard good things about Colm Tóibín as a writer and was looking forward to reading Brooklyn, his latest much hailed novel. At the heart of the story set in the early 50’s is Eilis Lacey, a young woman from a small town in Ireland which offers little prospects for the future. After having taken on a dismal job as a clerk in a local grocery shop, her beautiful, gainfully employed older sister makes arrangements with a priest come to visit his hometown from America. He promises to find work in Brooklyn for Eilis, who accepts the arrangement without discussion, even though she is less than keen to leave her small town and family behind. All is arranged for her by the priest, who finds her a position as a department store shop-girl (with possibilities for advancement), living arrangements in a rooming house, and signs her up for evening classes in business administration, her chosen field. She falls in love with the first boy she meets and eventually lets him gently bully her into a quick marriage when tragedy hits back in Ireland and she feels compelled to return to the fold. Once there, she is surprised to find that she’s become popular and lets herself get wrapped up in new possibilities. If it weren’t for the following words provided in the book description on the back of the book, I might have enjoyed it simply for the quiet story it has to tell and not been inclined to find fault with our girl:
“At the centre of Colm Tóibín’s internationally celebrated novel is Eilis Lacey, one of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary fiction.”
I’m not quite sure why anyone would describe Eilis that way because when all is said and done, the girl really is very dull. I found her to have little will of her own, letting others and circumstances dictate decisions for her. She is modelled on a vast proportion of women from past and present, who do their best not to rustle feathers, want to please everyone at all cost and in the process let themselves be swallowed up by life. I give credit where it is due: Tóibín is a very good storyteller, which regardless of my reservations made for pleasant enough reading. But I find it offensive to suggest that Eilis Lacey is the most memorable character contemporary fiction has to offer considering how little individuality transpires from her thoughts or her actions.
She suddenly decides to return to America following a confrontation, and we’re left with an open ending, probably the best part of the story. No matter how unlikely, it leaves us with a glimmer of hope that she might eventually become an interesting person, maybe sometime in the 60’s, when she’ll take on a lover (maybe several), discover drugs and rock music and get arrested for disturbing the peace because of her convictions.