Sunday, 29 November 2009

New York story

I've managed to build up a bit of a backlog of books that I've read but not blogged. Nicely defeating my argument that if I've time to read them, I've easily time to write down something about them. Anyway, this one, Brooklyn by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, I read way back while we were on holiday in early October, so it's going to be fun recalling details about it.

The novel tells the story of Eilis, a young woman living with her mother and older sister, Rose, in south-east Ireland in the 1950s. Struggling to find work at home, Eilis is offered a job in America through a family priest, a job that she clearly has to take. Apprehensive at first, then strongly homesick later, Eilis travels on her own to an alien New York where she becomes a shop assistant in an Italian department store in Brooklyn. Gradually, she finds her feet, both at work and in her new life in the United States. She's helped along the way by an attentive employer at work, a gruff but kind-hearted landlady and the watchful gaze of her Irish priest. This support, together with her own tenacity, slowly transforms Eilis from a shy wallflower to a more confident young woman, at ease in her night classes and on the dance floor at her parish church. At the latter she meets Tony, an Italian American who, after an extended courtship, she falls in love with. But an unexpected death back in Ireland forces Eilis to part from Tony and return, ostensibly briefly, to her old life. This visit confronts Eilis with the changes that America has wrought in her through the new esteem in which she finds herself held. Having left dowdy, she has returned sophisticated and exotic, and attracts the attention of a successful local man. Hesitant in telling her family of her relationship with Tony, and tempted by the possibility of unexpected romance in Ireland, Eilis allows herself to be swept along into the arms of this new suitor. But Eilis cannot keep her two lives separate and choosing between them is inevitable.

This was a really enjoyable story that unexpectedly ticked lots of boxes for me. I went in expecting some dour tale of misery in Ireland being supplanted by a whole new class of misery in the New World, with some worthy commentary about the emigrant experience along the way. Ireland's reputation as the wellspring of biographies that wallow in miserable and unforgivingly hard lives certainly proceeds it.

But in Eilis the novel creates a believable focus of whom the reader is at first protective, then someone whose modest triumphs can be shared, but then latterly someone whose fickleness begins to undo the earlier good will. As such, she feels a very real, fully three-dimensional character, and her gradual transformations are teased out naturally by Tóibín without ever feeling forced. Although some of her later decisions are liable to invoke despair in the reader, it's easy to see why she is so tempted, even while it's equally easy to see her (uncharacteristically) in the wrong.

The novel fills out Eilis' world with credible detail and a number of memorable secondary characters. Though she is relatively underplayed, Rose cuts an interesting figure in the novel as the wise elder sister with motives that are opaque to Eilis. Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis' landlady, also plays a key role; at first, a stern matron figure to her young boarders, but privately supportive of the girls that she gets to know well. Nothing said directly, but the implication is that Mrs. Kehoe sees something of her own young self in Eilis.

One aspect of the novel which is a little credulity-stretching is Eilis' generally good fortunes; she more or less lands on her feet, and almost everyone she comes into contact with, certainly everyone who matters, is kind and helpful to her. She does seem a rather lucky woman to say the least. But it's not like she wins the lottery of anything like that, so this doesn't really detract from her story. Perhaps I've just read too many novels in which things-going-wrong drive the plot forwards?

Anyway, a most enjoyable read. Not likely to set the world on fire, and not the canonical emigrant novel (whatever that is!), but easily one of the most pleasing novels I've read of late. I've not read Tóibín before, but if he writes like this all the time, I'll definitely be dipping back into his work.

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