Brooklyn

By Colm Tóibín

Scribner. 262 pp. $25

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Reviewed by Susan Balée


Here's the immigrant's tale we so rarely hear, the tale of the person who came to America but didn't really want to, whose heart stayed home in her Irish village, for whom every new thing in the new world evokes the absence of all the old things.

Brooklyn

is a beautifully wrought story of homesickness.

The novel begins in Enniscorthy, where young Eilis Lacey lives with her mother and glamorous elder sister Rose. It's the early 1950s, and the Irish economy is shattered. All the male Laceys are gone: Eilis' father has died, and her brothers have left to find work in England. There's little to do in the village, even with her bookkeeping skills. Rose has a good job in an office, but Eilis can find nothing similar.

Father Flood, a priest from their village who now oversees a flourishing parish in Brooklyn, returns and tells the Laceys about all the opportunities for the Irish in America. As Eilis, her sister, and her mother listen to the priest, Eilis realizes that her sister means to give her the chance at a life in the new world:

. . . Rose appeared to be in a sort of dream. As Eilis watched her, it struck her that she had never seen Rose look so beautiful. And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance.

The plan is made, and Rose has made it. Eilis is going to America; Rose will stay at home and care for their mother. These three good women, like characters in a Henry James novel, cannot breach their well-bred silence. "They knew so much, each one of them, [Eilis] thought, that they could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking."

So Eilis goes, unwillingly, to America. The passage over is the usual horror story of seasickness belowdecks, but at last the passengers make it to the farther shore. Eilis is soon ensconced in a boarding house run by Mrs. Kehoe, another transplanted Irishwoman. Through the good offices of Father Flood, Eilis is hired as a salesgirl in a big department store.

Brooklyn in the 1950s teems with immigrants. Irish, Italians, Jews, and "colored" people commingle uneasily. One of the Irish boarders remarks, " 'I didn't come all the way to America, thank you, to hear people talking Italian on the street or see them wearing funny hats.' "

Eilis soon falls for an Italian boy, however, and her department store is among the first to begin serving black customers. These elegant women who come to buy sepia- and coffee-colored stockings fascinate Eilis. They are beautiful and have better manners than any of the white women she knows. They do not look at her as they shop, then pay for their purchases.

When fellow boarders castigate Eilis for waiting on such customers, it is Mrs. Kehoe who comes down hard on them: "Well, we mightn't like them but the Negro men fought in the overseas war, didn't they? And they were killed just the same as our men. I always say that. No one minded them when they needed them." Interestingly, what ultimately brings the various immigrant groups of Brooklyn together is their love of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Athletic talent transcends ethnicity; everyone talks of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Preacher Roe. The national pastime unites and makes Americans of them all.

Brooklyn is a gentle, elegiac novel about the remarkable feelings of an unremarkable but deeply likable young Irish woman. More important, it's a novel about homesickness, about the loss of an old life and the difficulty of acquiring a new one. Tóibín captures this feeling in haunting, effective prose:

She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. . . . In [Enniscorthy], if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false.

Colm Tóibín shows us the inner life of a woman who otherwise would be a cipher to us. She'd be a name on a ledger at Ellis Island, a freckled face in a few old photos. He makes her not one of many, but one of us. He gives us a life of loss, but a life in full.

Susan Balée (sbalee@temple.edu) teaches in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.