I first heard of Colm Tóibín in a college English class, where we read The Aspern Papers by Henry James followed by two contemporary novels that featured James as a character. Tóibín’s beautiful The Master was one of them. I loved its limpid prose and knew someday I would read more by Colm Tóibín.
About the Book:
It is the early 1950s, and Eilis Lacey is about to finish bookkeeping classes in the small Irish town where she has grown up, caring for her mother from under the shadow of her older sister. Her father has passed away, and her brothers have jobs in distant Dublin. Eilis figures she will eventually find a job in her hometown and perhaps a husband, passing the years of her life without venturing far beyond the town’s familiar limits. It won’t be the most thrilling life, but it suits her fine.
Then an Irish priest visiting from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis, to get her to America and to help her establish herself there. In Brooklyn, he assures her, her skills will be in demand and she will settle into American life easily. Faced with the knowledge that her mother and sister have pinned all their hopes on her, what choice does Eilis have but to take the priest up on his offer and try her luck in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is one of those quiet books, the kind that seems straightforward…until suddenly you realize it’s anything but. Tóibín’s prose felt plainer in Brooklyn than they did in The Master, and I think for that reason I picked the former up once in print but only got a few pages in. When I came across the audiobook at the library, I thought I would give it another go, and I’m very glad I did.
The story is simple, yet at its core it brims with truth. With unadorned narration, Tóibín follows Eilis through her rather ordinary life: starting a job, gossiping with fellow boarders, writing to her family, helping her sponsor with church functions. Her life is unremarkable, free from the sensationalism and breathtaking moments sprinkled throughout many contemporary novels. She could have been any young immigrant, leaving everyone and everything she has ever known to seek a better life. Yet somehow, in her ordinariness, Eilis is beautiful. I hung on every word of this one small soul’s story.
That is not to say that Eilis herself is simple. On the contrary, she is surprisingly intricate, and I quickly grew to feel I knew her. Tóibín somehow makes the feelings with which Eilis struggles, her reactions and changes of mood, universally accessible, which adds to the realness of Eilis. I felt I knew her, and trusted her to find her own way as I looked on. I was pleasantly shocked to realize how quickly I’d become invested in Tóibín’s leading lady.
Kirsten Potter narrates the audiobook, which I began skeptically, wondering how well her unashamedly American accent would work for a story so steeped in Ireland. But Potter’s voice is sturdy, just like Eilis, and her style of reading somehow matched Tóibín’s writing. Potter used gentle accents for characters who required it (including Eilis herself, when she spoke), and her own narration came to set off the dialogue nicely. I listened whenever I could and found myself quite caught up in Brooklyn by the end.