Writings / Reviews

Fiction Review

Julia Cooper

by Colm Toibin
Scribner, 2009
262 pp, $25.00

At the opening night of this year’s Readers and Writers Festival in Auckland, New Zealand, Colm Toibin spoke of the difference in 1950’s Ireland between immigrating to Britain and moving to America. At the time, emigrating from Ireland to England meant remaining in the lower class, whereas immigrating to America, the land of opportunities and movie stars, meant the chance for social elevation and reinvention. Eilis Lacy, the endearing protagonist of Toibin’s most recent novel Brooklyn, apprehensively leaves her small town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and with it her mother and sister Rose, for a new life in New York. While her departure from Ireland is rife with anxiety and silent prayers for someone else to take her place, Eilis recognizes the sacrifice of her family in sending her abroad. Eilis becomes particularly aware of the sacrifice of her older sister Rose—to her a far better candidate for the social graces and joie de vivre necessary for such an opportunity— who silently gives up any chance to leave Enniscorthy so that Eilis may. Lying in bed the night before her departure, Eilis thinks to herself: “the arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else” (29). She lets her mind wander and imagines “someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose” (29). It is the finality of moving to America that frightens Eilis, the all too real likelihood that with the geographical and cultural distance between Enniscorthy and Brooklyn, there is no chance of homecoming. Hers is a quest narrative that others have set in motion, with ocean liner tickets reserved, housing arranged, and awaiting employment; yet determined to put on a brave face for her family, Eilis sets sail for America. The beautiful cadence of Toibin’s writing brings forth a sympathetic image of this frightened young woman, who faced with bidding farewell to her kin forever, is determined to leave them with only pleasant memories of her: “There was, she thought, enough sadness in the house, maybe even more than she realized. She would try as best she could not to add to it. […] What she would need to do in the days before she left and on the morning of her departure was smile, so that they would remember her smiling” (31).

Immediately sick with loneliness and timid in the big city, Eilis gradually and unwittingly settles into the rhythms and bustle of Brooklyn; excelling in studies and work, building a sense of community, and even finding romance. Although Toibin insists that he cannot write comedy, having recently said in an interview: “I can’t do it. I do cloudy and grey,” he writes with wit and humour of the little culture shocks and small embarrassments of being in a new country. His depiction of Eilis’ boarding house, run by the punctilious Mrs. Kehoe, offers an astute and endearing portrait of those moments of transition and their minor calamities. It is not until a death causes her return to Ireland that Eilis realizes the full and content life she has built for herself in Brooklyn. While those who immigrated to England were expected to return home for holidays, it was thought with the expense, time, and cultural distance between Ireland and America, that the new Americans would likely never return. Thus, when Eilis does come back to Enniscorthy, she arrives with the status of a minor celebrity and as a paragon of fashion and glamour. Yet her homecoming is fraught for precisely the reasons that it is also pleasant—Eilis has changed but Enniscorthy has not. Back home in Ireland the world she never wanted to leave quietly confronts the new one that she has created from scratch in Brooklyn, and Eilis has to decide whether she still wishes someone else could take her place. Ultimately, Toibin’s is a subtly magnificent novel, which in the character of Eilis, has shown the human frailties, errors, strengths, and patience that accompany our need to feel grounded to a place, to have a sense of belonging, the need to be home.

About The Author


Julia P.W. Cooper is completing a Master’s degree in English at McGill University. Her most recent research project is a foray into mourning, grief, and its limits, with particular interest in the plays of Sarah Kane.

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