This lovely book is a quiet and understated look at the immigrant experience. The author uses wonderfully minimal language and a humble tone to tell the engrossing story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who is sent to live in Brooklyn in the 1950s. There are no job opportunities for Eilis in her small Irish town, so her older sister Rose, who wants a better life for Eilis, works with a visiting priest from America, Father Fludd, to find Eilis a job and a place to lodge in Brooklyn.
When Eilis arrives in America she finds herself living in a boarding house run by Mrs. Kehoe, another Irish immigrant. Suffering terrible bouts of homesickness, she dutifully goes to her job at Bartocci’s department store and attends classes in bookkeeping at Brooklyn College. The routine of her life stems the sadness that overtakes her, but the routine is broken when she meets Tony, an Italian plumber, at a dance. Experiencing her first relationship, Eilis finds happiness, but events in Ireland soon draw her back to her homeland. Will she stay with her family in Ireland or return to the land that has molded her into a confident, capable woman?
Toibin is a master of drawing the reader into Eilis’ world, whether it’s the slow pace of her life in Ireland or the heat, bustle and noise of Brooklyn.
His writing style is straightforward and pristine, uncluttered of useless description or unnecessary commentary. For instance, the departure scenes (when Eilis leaves Ireland) are unusual for the way they’re written. Toibin doesn’t write about the good-byes between Eilis and her family members – they are skipped over. I found it disconcerting at first, as I’m not used to this type of sparseness, but I can see that this strategy was more effective that gushing accounts of crying and sadness. Over the course of the novel I came to love Toibin’s style.
As for characterization – it is fabulously nuanced and layered. No character is all good or all bad and their actions can’t be predicted. Eilis is a well-rounded and fascinating character and Toibin does a marvelous job of depicting her shifting and fluctuating thoughts and opinions. Tony, Eilis’ boyfriend, is one of my favorite characters in the novel and I loved discovering his character as it is slowly unfolded for Eilis as well as for the reader.
I could go on for quite a while about this amazing book. It would be the perfect novel to discuss with someone (hint, hint). I absolutely loved everything about it and will definitely read more of Colm Toibin.