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The Voyage Out: Revisiting Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn


The other golden arches. The Brooklyn Bridge. Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library.

As sharpened pencils and scarves replace popsicles and beach towels, you know it’s time for a book report!

This fall I picked up a copy of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Tóibín  visited the museum to discuss Brooklyn when it was released, in 2009. The total good-book-joy of reading this novel is in no way undermined by how shockingly sad it can be. Just keep some tissues on hand… the history of Irish immigration to America hasn’t always been sunny. The emotional peaks and valleys are stitched convincingly together by the depth of Tóibín’s context. I am hardly the first to note that Brooklyn is a lovingly nuanced re-imagining of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.  Tóibín’s pages are heavy with empathy from perhaps his own experience as an Irishman in the United States.

Brooklyn’s story is the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from Ennisworthy, a tiny Irish town. Eilis’s sister secures Eilis a job in 1950s Brooklyn and she goes. What could be greater than an opportunity in the land of opportunity? Under Tóibín’s careful narrative the trip becomes an ambiguous blessing.  In a space of text as tight  as the town itself, Tóibín manages to paint the sweetness and acid of living in such a small Irish community. Eilis’s family has fallen on hard times, and the town has few opportunities. Her brothers have found industrial work in England, and Tóibín gently implies the underlying tension between those neighboring nations. Her sister Rose has the only available accounting job in town and Eilis, though qualified for more, finds her only position as that of a clerk at the fancier grocer in town. Tóibín sets us up to understand just enough about the community to feel Eilis’s claustrophobia and discomfort as she is forced to serve the well-to-do customers first. Tiny differences social status make Eilis’s leisure time cramped as well as she feels slighted at the weekend dance hall. From this miniature  network of streets and families, Eilis suddenly finds herself in Brooklyn.  She is struck by the masses of people, and the exponential possibilities for confusion, novelty and love. During her walk to work, Eilis thinks at first that something is the matter in the streets as she has never seen so many people heading in one direction.

Once in Brooklyn, Eilis lives in a boarding house and works a job at a department store, all while completing night classes at Brooklyn College in accounting. She is suddenly heading toward much more, but nearly drowning in the loneliness of the big city and bigger nation that is post-war Brooklyn.  Tóibín tracks not only Eilis’s challenges but the social countercurrents of a nation on the move. Expansively, sometimes perhaps too briefly, Tóibín touches on the entrance of the African-American middle class to Brooklyn, the echoes of the Holocaust’s anti-semitism, and the strictures of a society’s attitude toward romance.

Rarely has an author so convincingly produced a love affair in as few words as Tóibín. But just as the reader begins to join Eilis in her joy, tragedy brings her back to Ennisworthy, and her new perspective on the home she so recently longed for deserves its place in the most wrenching of 21st-century migration stories.  For those of us at the Tenement Museum, who so closely follow immigration stories in New York, it is overwhelming to read about an immigrant’s return “home.” The crystalline loneliness of Eilis having lost her sense of  belonging vivid as Jhumpa Lahiri’s meticulous tales, Interpreter of Maladies or The Namesake. I was reminded also of the special confusion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ifemelu in the totally brilliant novel Americanah.  Eilis’s return is the real apogee of Brooklyn and in the world of 140 characters and listicles  it is a real treat to read a novel with as intricate a twist and as careful a build up as Tóibín’s final chapter.

So pick up a copy, at the Tenement Museum or elsewhere before you see the feature film, in limited release November 4th!

–Posted by Julia Berick Marketing and Communications Coordinator