Friday, October 7, 2016

"Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin: A Quiet Reflection of an Ordinary Girl in Search of Home

Not everyone wants a life full of adventure.

Some people want to remain in their hometowns and follow the same paths that family and friends chose before them.  Live close to the home where they grew up.  Marry someone who is from the same community.  Create a family and hope that their children will want to grow up close to home.

Twenty year old Eilis Lacey, the protagonist in Colm Toibin's novel "Brooklyn" (made popular by the highly acclaimed movie of the same name), does not want an adventure, but her dutiful yielding to her older sister, Rose, and her widowed mother sends her away from her beloved Enniscorthy in Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in 1951.

The beauty in Toibin's novel stem's from the fact that he chose a very ordinary girl whose life moves at a normal pace under ordinary circumstances.  There are no huge twists and turns or breathless dramatic action scenes in this novel.  The quiet subtleties of the novel, though, are what make it so readable and lovable.  Even Toibin's writing is subtle and quiet without the flair of overt descriptions and highly emotional characters.  Everything in this novel has a dim glow about it rather than a sharply lit room.  It reminds me of my grandmother's home in Highlandtown, Baltimore which was old fashioned, impeccably clean, unsentimental and very straightforward.  Everything had a function. Nothing was whimsical or dramatic.  Life happened in that basement, though.  Friends and family gathered there for holidays and celebrations.  Conversations were never dull and everyone left feeling a semblance of home.

After Eilis's journey to Brooklyn (which was one of the most tenuous scenes of the book when she along with the other passengers battled sea sickness), she is personally escorted by a priest to a respectable boarding house full of other respectable young women.  She gets a job at Bartocci's department store and at the urging of the priest, studies bookkeeping.  When she attends a local Irish dance, she meets and falls for an Italian American named Tony who despite his family's disdain for the Irish, has a "thing" for Irish girls.

Their relationship, like all the relationships in this book, is subtle.  There are no dramatic moments when my heart beat out of my chest, but I was rapt to find out what would become of them.  That is the true art of what Toibin's book brings.  It doesn't go about shouting and showing off.  It's the strength of the ordinary that draws in the reader and holds her there until the ending.

Eilis returns to Ireland to attend a funeral and finds herself in a few more dilemmas involving her mother wanting her to remain there and her mother's stoicism.  She also begins a relationship with a charismatic man and puts herself in a situation where she needs to decide where her loyalties will reside.  Where will home be? What in our lives is worth our attachments and what should we abandon to grow and move on? What is love and how does it pull us in different directions? Most importantly what constitutes home?

These are the questions that "Brooklyn" examines quietly in the ordinary life of an ordinary girl.

For me, this is the perfect book for a fall weekend with a cup of tea, and a nice big fuzzy blanket which may not sound like a big adventure but there is beauty in the ordinary days of our lives.

 (credit given to Jo for so nicely giving me this book when I told her I was in a reading dry spell).

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