Having set myself this challenge I am very, very slowly working my way through the longlisted titles for the Booker Prize. So far, I have only read three out of the thirteen titles. Although I have until 6 October I am juggling a full time job and, of course, other books (no excuse, I know) so I am not sure if I will succeed. Still, I am determined to read them all at some point even if I do not meet my deadline.
The Booker Prize shortlist was announced whilst I was on holiday in Suffolk and I had just finished two of the longlisted titles – one that made the shortlist and one that didn’t. Unfortunately, Brooklyn did not make the shortlist and, frankly, I was really disappointed about this.
Set in Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey as she struggles with post Second World War Ireland, a country suffering from a poor economy and few jobs – sound familiar? Despite her qualifications and hard work Eilis cannot find permanent employment and, as all her brothers have done before her, she leaves the country. Her older sister and mother openly encourage her to leave making it clear that they want a better life for her and Eilis finds herself on a boat to America, mostly out of a sense of duty to her mother and sister.
Once in Brooklyn the local Priest, Father Flood, arranges employment for Eilis in a local department store. Her days fall into a new routine as she goes to work and returns in the evening to a boarding house full of similar Irish girls. However, Eilis is suddenly struck with homesickness and loneliness as she tries to adjust to her new life. As an act of kindness Father Flood enrols her onto some prestigious evening classes so that she can qualify as a book keeper, something that she was aspiring to be back home in Ireland.
As Eilis works hard she finds happiness which is affirmed when she meets Tony at a local dance in the Parish Hall. Eventually, her life moves away from her life in Ireland and Eilis becomes more and more at home in Brooklyn. Through hard work and determination she is able to realise opportunities for herself that were not possible in Ireland. Her relationship with Tony becomes more and more serious, until disaster strikes at home and she is called back to her mother and the small town of Enniscorthy.
On her return, Eilis is aware that she is no longer just plain Eilis Lacey, her time in Brooklyn has made her glamorous and mysterious. When an old flame reappears Eilis has a difficult decision to make between her old life and her new, free life; duty or personal choice.
Colm Toibin’s novel is certainly one of the best that I have read this year. It’s subtle power is gripping and the simple, entrancing language carries the reader along so that Eilis’s decision is a weight for us to bear. Eilis is a true heroine, she steadfastly works hard to improve her life and tries to make the most out of difficult situations. She is honest and embodies a simplicity which is admirable – her head is not easily turned but she is ambitious.
Running alongside Eilis’s experience is the examination of a variety of cultures coming together and living side by side for the first time. Brooklyn in the 1950s is portrayed as a melting pot of the Irish, Italian and Afro-Caribbean communities. Communities ebb and flow together as they struggle to leave their old lives behind and pursue the American Dream without forgetting their heritage.
Toibin manages to encapsulate so much within a short novel – only 250 pages – but he does so through a simplicity which guarantees emotional engagement as human struggles are splayed open for all to see clearly.
I read this book in a bit of a quandary about work, life, the usual. When I finished I immediately enrolled onto two evening classes – a small homage to the power of reading.