In Brooklyns protagonist, Eilis Lacey, Colm Toibin has created a heroine of quiet intensity. And by placing her in the dilemma between individual freedom and the duty of familial responsibility, Toibin manages to capture the essence of human value and the ultimate isolation of self. These are the themes that run through his earlier Enniscorthy novels, Blackwater Lightship and Heather Blazing, and particularly in The Master, Toibins fictionalised account of Henry James later life. As Toibins writing is often compared to that of Henry James, it is inevitable that Eilis has been compared to Isabel Archer; it is true, both characters strive for personal integrity and freedom, although Eilis comes from an entirely different social and economic background from Isabel.
Toibin evokes a vivid landscape of 1950s South West Ireland, where, unaware of her own value, Eilis lives in admiration of her older sister Rose, who is gracefully poised and remarkably independent, with a good job and a wide circle of friends. Unlike her sister, Eilis is unable to find work and resigns herself to a lack of aspiration, barely daring to hope for a life of her own. Most of the men, including her brothers, have moved to Liverpool to work on the docks.
When Rose finds an opportunity for Eilis to move to Brooklyn, she takes it. Through Eilis, Toibin narrates the emotional currents of leaving home, enduring the rough crossing of the Atlantic and arriving alone in an alien country. Her homesickness and sense of isolation are acute, but gradually she makes a life for herself, works for a department store, takes evening classes and qualifies as a book-keeper, and starts to recognise her worth.
She views having her own room at a boarding house with a sense of achievement and begins to relish her independence. However, it is a year before she understands emotionally that she can escape the prison of her isolation and create her own world. She travels out of Brooklyn to visit Manhattan and falls in love.
When a family tragedy demands that she returns home to Ireland, the fear of losing her new life is intense. She books a return ticket and promises to use it. However, back in Enniscorthy, Eilis finds that her American experience has given her a new allure and status, including the temptations of a new love and a life that she never imagined would be within her reach. The conflict of loyalties is startling and is a remarkable feat of narrative tension.
Colm Toibins writing is fluid and direct, resonating with perfectly balanced sentences and accurate observation. Much of the enjoyment of Brooklyn comes from his evocation of place through detail and from a cast of characters on both sides of the Atlantic gossiping Father Flood, the petty-minded shopkeeper Mrs Kelly, the nosy Mrs Kehoe, the Brooklyn landlady. Toibins observations of Irish small-town society and of emigrants living abroad are rich with quiet humour. The accuracy of the detail and the pin-point descriptions stay with us long after reading the last page, just as much as the torment of Eilis Laceys choice. A beautifully written and compelling novel.