Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

When I first saw the trailers for the movie BROOKLYN, I knew I wanted to see it, but it did not make an appearance at a theater near us (or if it did, it exited very quickly) and I did not get the opportunity.  Of course, I also wanted to read the novel it was based on, and I am actually glad that I received a copy of the book through inter-library loan before the dvd came out.  Irish writer Colm Toibin has been shortlisted for the Booker Award (a British literary award) several times and BROOKLYN was winner of the 2009 Costa Award, another British award. After reading summaries to some of his other novels, it is clear that Toibin excels at telling "people" stories, small stories that revolve around family relationships and obligations.  BROOKLYN begins in a tiny Irish village in the 1950s.  Young Ellis cannot find a job, despite her great skill with numbers and accounts.  Secretly Ellis's sister and mother arrange for her to immigrate to New York City where an Irish priest (friend of the family) will see that she has a safe place to live and an entry job at a large department store.  Ellis leaves without protesting.  On the ship to the United States, Ellis shares quarters with a woman just returning from a visit to Ireland.  She takes Ellis under her wing, instructing her on how to dress and behave when she arrives so that she will not be sent back by immigration officials.  That Ellis follows her advice is just one example of how Ellis's thoughts and actions are never quite her own --everything she does appears to be planned or molded by someone else.

She is never taken advantage of, but it is clear that she is very naive.  She came to the US because of a strong sense of obligation to her older sister who has sacrificed to provide for the family and because she knows her frail mother wants the best for her.  But once here, Ellis never completely shares with them her new life.  Only bits are relayed in the letters, and when Ellis begins to see a young Italian, she only tells sister Rose that she has gone to a few dances and movies with someone. To her mother, she tells nothing.

The other single women who live at the boarding house with Ellis seem petty and that part of the book did not interest me, but there is a kind of repressive dormitory mentality to their actions that is probably realistic.  As I read, I kept thinking about the millions of immigrants who came to this country, probably knowing that they would never return to what was (and for many always remained) home.  At least those who came as couples or families were prompted by  a dream of building a new life, but for those who, like Ellis, came because home held no options, life here must have been a challenge.  Other reviewers have remarked about the novel's unhurried pace and unremarkable events.  I thought the same, and for awhile feared I was missing some great message. Finally, I settled that this was simply Toibin's way of telling the story. We are privy to Ellis's thoughts, but they are always guarded, almost half-formed and then forgotten.  Even Ellis's romance with the young Italian seems measured and almost void of emotion.  Then a death occurs in Ireland and Ellis returns home.  Within hours, Ellis falls back into the old life there and the memory of Brooklyn becomes fainter and fainter.

At times I was not sure I liked Ellis, and as she begins to settle into her Irish life, that feeling grew stronger.  I could see how "home" could so quickly feel comfortable, but I knew where I wanted her to be.   I can't say anymore, except that I do recommend BROOKLYN.  It's the quiet type of novel that will have you filling in the spaces between lines with your own thoughts and questions.  And Ellis will only become a complete person for you after you read the whole book, close the cover, and think back on what you've read.  Now to see the movie!!

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