Author: Colm Tóibín
Genre: Fiction (Historical)
Before Saoirse Ronan’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress, “Brooklyn” came to life as a novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín. Much like the film, which found critical acclaim in its 2015 release, “Brooklyn” tells the story of Eilis Lacey and her emigration from Ireland in the 1950s. As the title might suggest Eilis arrives in Brooklyn, New York and begins a new life.
Eilis lives in Enniscorthy, Ireland, Tóibín’s own real life home town. When she struggles to find work in the small town, her older sister, wanting a better life for her, arranges for her to travel to America and find work in New York.
Eilis finds more than just a job in America, as one night at an Irish community center dance she begins a relationship with Italian American plumber, Tony. Eilis navigates falling in love and learning to assimilate into American culture, all while trying to build a career for herself by taking night classes and working in retail.
Her life in America and her relationship with Tony are thrown into limbo when a sudden tragedy strikes the Lacey family and Eilis must return to Ireland.
“Brooklyn” is a historical novel, telling the story of immigration and assimilation, as much as it is telling Eilis’s story. We are given the descriptive experience of traveling to America by boat from Ireland, a dirty experience of sea sickness and cramped rooms on an ocean liner. In moments like the scene of Eilis passing through customs or her first night in the boarding house with six other girls, we see that Tóibín’s novel grasps at the general immigrant experience through a very intimate and personal narrative.
Tóibín emphasizes the lonely life of the immigrant in the middle of the twentieth century and focuses on the silence and isolation that dominate every aspect of Eilis’s life. He crafts a novel that tells the story by making us listen and cling to each word the narration gives us. We are asked to do some of the work in reading Brooklyn as the withholding of narrative points and moments of ellipses dominate the narrative and encapsulate the very fractured immigrant experience Eilis has.
“Brooklyn” is a coming of age novel, but one that challenges every characteristic of the genre by placing its central character into a new world where her maturation process is inextricably tied to her assimilation in America.
While John Crowley’s 2015 film adaptation makes a heartwarming love story that certainly interrogates the immigrant experience, Tóibín’s novel is very different in its approach to Eilis’s story. Certain characters and moments missing from the film—even the endings of the two works are different—and so having seen the movie is certainly no excuse to skip this novel.