Last week, after finishing Solar, I read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. It only took me a couple of days to read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Curiously, I find that’s about all I can think of to say. In fact, I’ve racked up sixty cents in overdue fees at the library just so I could keep the book around in case I had some “A-ha!” moment and thought of something insightful to share. Perhaps I am still tired after Solar. Let me put it this way: Brooklyn is a fresh fruit salad, where Solar is a Vegas buffet. One is simple and nutritious, but not any lesser for it. The other: well, some of it is good, some of it not so good, but generally it’s just too much and leaves you feeling bloated at the end.
Brooklyn is a perfectly lovely book. It tells the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl who leaves Ireland for America, after her sister Rose makes arrangements with a visiting priest to get her work there. Eilis crosses the Atlantic by ship, going to Brooklyn, where she will live in a boarding house and work at a department store. She makes a few friends; she finds a boyfriend. She attends Brooklyn College to attain a certificate in accounting. I am making it sound positively dull and dreary, but it isn’t: everything Eilis does is colored not only by her sense of foreignness as an Irish person living in America, but by her foreignness as a person living and making decisions on her own, deciding what sort of person she will become. At home in Ireland, in County Wexford and her village of Enniscorthy, she is Rose Lacey’s sister. She is her mother’s youngest daughter. She is the plain, supportive friend to her two best friends Nancy and Annette. She’s a shop clerk at Miss Kelly’s store. Everything she does and says in Ireland is circumscribed by these facts, but in Brooklyn she finds she must determine for herself who and what she is, and what she wants.
Just read this opening sentence:
Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.
Clearly Tóibín is a master, for this simple sentence has all the intricate workings of a launch pad for the space shuttle. We know that Eilis is fully ensconced in her known universe, and we know who she is in relation to her surroundings, and that she will be launched into the unknown, just by those 24 words. Tóibín’s economical prose lets Eilis’s story shine through, and it seems deceptively simple as the language, when in fact it is as complicated as any singular life which seems so ordinary on the surface. Near the end of the book, a tragedy occurs, and Eilis must return to Ireland. She makes some life-altering decisions and faces others she had never considered. The ending is quiet, but not simple. I can’t say much more than that because the end is really the crux, and to be honest, I am not sure it is at all happy, even if it is ultimately necessary. Nonetheless, it’s a worthy read.
It was later, when she got home and lay in the bed after her evening meal, that the day she had just spent would seem like one of the longest of her life as she would find herself going through it scene by scene. Even tiny details stayed in her mind. When she deliberately tried to think about something else, or leave her mind blank, events from the day would come quickly back. For each day, she thought, she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away, get it out of her system so that it did not keep her awake at night or fill her dreams with flashes of what had actually happened and other flashes that had nothing to do with anything familiar, but were full of rushes of colour or crowds of people, everything frenzied and fast.
When she directed her gaze down she saw that he was not smiling; he seemed nonetheless fully at ease and curious. There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness, she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her mind as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.