Brooklyn

This novel, lent to me by my very awesome local library, is the first I’ve ever read of Colm Toibin’s works.  It is a piece of literary fiction about an Irish immigrant named Eilis and encompasses what her life was like in Enniscorthy, Ireland and then what it evolved into in Brooklyn, NY.  When we first meet our protagonist she is unemployed, living off her mother’s disability checks and her sister’s income.  Her father’s death years before made it all but impossible for them to survive on the mother’s income alone and so the oldest daughter is now ultimately the bread winner.  In a time of impoverishment and high unemployment Eilis is hardly on her own in her circumstance.  Her three brothers had already moved to England to find work and now, for reasons discovered later in the book, Eilis is being shipped to America in hopes she can continue her education in book keeping as well as have employment. The US is what her family considers to be her only hope.

It’s a coming of age tale, one that shows us what it’s like for Eilis to fall in love for the first time, how she battles home sickness and even speaks of the rampant bigotry and self-segregation that occurs amongst some of the neighborhoods (Italians vs Irish for example) and so I thought I would love this book.  I did not.  Objectively I can say this author seemed to feel compelled to regale his audience with great detail in regards to sea sickness, particularly how the person sharing the room on the ship with Eilis could tell how she had eaten something with a lot of peas in it before the storm hit, but otherwise kept me at arms’ length through copious telling (not to be confused with “copiously vomiting” like Eilis was described to be doing – a few times).  Having finished the book I have no idea what the point or lesson of it was, some books are just tales, but if that is the case I generally expect to come away with something other than great annoyance for the protagonist.

Her struggle with homesickness and depression was given about a page of expansion and never delved below the superficial signs of it.  No experiences of nostalgia through a familiar scent or sight were brought to the readers’ attention, just our character thinking it felt like something her brother had told her before she shipped out of Liverpool and just a little bit of crying.  The following excerpt is when Eilis discovers she is sad about not being at home in Ireland and contains some of the better description in the book:

…It was only as the dawn came that she remembered something Jack had said to her on the day in Liverpool before she had caught the boat, a time that now seemed like years ago.  He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like.  His manner was so mild and good-humoured, just as her father’s had been, that he would not in any case want to complain.  She considered writing to him now asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing.  It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again.  She did not know what she was going to do.  But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her.

There’s nothing, in my opinion, explicitly wrong with the above passage excepting I never got the sense she really was in hell.  She goes through her days feeling glum, gets a talking to at work from superiors who didn’t like her looking sad, and never is there discussion of her mental state and how it impacts her physically.  There are words, adjectives, telling us how she feels but never language to show us, to make us feel, to make us relate.  The jacket boasts a statement I thought to be intriguing:  “By far Toibin’s most instantly engaging and emotionally resonant novel, Brooklyn will make readers fall in love with his gorgeous writing and spellbinding characters.”  And if it’s true I can honestly say I have absolutely no interest in reading another of his works.  Where I normally am a sap and cry over things I found myself only slightly riveted, and where I thought my stomach should have been turning with sea sickness I found myself annoyed as though being greeted by the bad horror movie version of an arterial wound.

Have you read it?  What were your thoughts?

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6 responses to “Brooklyn

  • Heather

    I agree with you and you know how I felt about the short sentences all the way to the paragraph-long sentences. I found that there was too much internal dialogue; so much so I began skimming. I also find it hard to believe she wasn’t homesick before she received those letters, then we had to hear about it for a page!
    I do have to give Toibin credit for the way he described Eilis’ mother and her landlady. They seemed to mirror each other’s personalities and both drove me crazy to the point where I wanted to slap them. If an author can bring that sort of emotion to the page then I give him credit.
    However, I’m still trying to figure out the point of the story, like you said. *SPOLIER*

    Was Eilis just so naive and immature that she fell in love with the first cute boy that showed her some kindness and respect? Someone threatening to blackmail her caused her to flee to America. But, I just can’t get over that she must’ve been a shallow person if that’s what it took for her to get her head on straight in the game of love.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Good points, Heather. It’s funny – I had never really thought of Eilis as naive until you said that and I really can’t disagree. Her psychology didn’t seem to be well formed when she showed little to no fear about her journey, being in a new environment, but then seemingly was either naive or jaded when she met Tony. It was quite inconsistent while the prose was… well, it was just not what I expected for a book regaled as so exceptional.

  • Carol Kilgore

    I haven’t read this and probably won’t. It’s doesn’t sound like the kind of book I enjoy. Thanks.

    • kimberlyloomis

      It seemed so promising, too. I really think the hype around a book aids and abets a level of potential disappointment. Expected adventure and love and got a whole lot of “meh”. Thanks for stopping by, Carol. 🙂

  • Kelly

    All in all, I have to agree with you both. The writing seemed very abrupt, and for the most part, hardly engaging. As for the boat part (Kim’s favorite part!), I think that if that level of detail had been present throughout the whole book, it wouldn’t have been as … well, disgusting and rather out of place.

    *POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD*

    I read so many passages that could’ve been expanded upon, like her Jewish professor, the segregation, and her experience in school. Eilis did seem rather naive, and unfortunately, she didn’t seem to have any personal drive. She just did what other people told her to do: going to Brooklyn in the first place, going to college to help with the homesickness, going along to dances she didn’t want to go to, going out with Jim, and finally leaving the BIG decision of the book up to her old boss’ blackmail! I really couldn’t sympathize with Eilis much; there wasn’t much to her really. I didn’t find the book to be emotionally resonant at all, and if this is the author’s most resonant, the others must truly be lacking.

    Of course, it depends on what a reader is looking for in a novel. This is, simply, a coming of age story. I personally like deep and unique characters, an author’s care to really set the scene, and also some historical context. There was some history in this book — I enjoyed the ball game and Coney’s Island — but overall I was disappointed.

    • kimberlyloomis

      I think you said it better than I did, Kelly! At least an anti-hero like the famous Holden Caufield incited some attachment and interaction with the reader instead of the mere shell of our supposed heroine. I think all characters need to have something of exception to them to carry a story; Eilis had nothing for her to either champion or loathe excepting in her romance (and I use that term with some degree of sarcasm) – and that was a place of loathing for me. He was the one choice she seemed to make in her life and she couldn’t commit to it or him for more than a week or so.

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