In most novels about immigrants to America, the immigrant faces formidable struggles in the new world but never seriously considers returning to his or her homeland. Brooklyn, by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, is different. The protagonist, a young woman named Eilis Lacey, is drawn back to Ireland after a death in her family just as her life in America is coming together.
Eilis never expected to leave her small hometown in the first place, but in the wretched Irish economy of the 1950s, she had few prospects. Her older sister Rose, who was supporting Eilis and their widowed mother (their brothers work in England), made arrangements with an Irish-American priest to sponsor Eilis in America. The priest gets Eilis a department store clerk’s job and a room in an Irish boarding house in Brooklyn. Eilis takes bookkeeping courses in the evening and is courted by an amiable Italian-American. Just as Eilis finishes the courses and secures her romantic future, devastating news summons her back to Ireland. Her stay at home lasts long enough for Eilis to develop reasons not to go back to Brooklyn, so she must make a hard choice.
Eilis is not a transparent character; her thoughts and feelings are somewhat enigmatic. Brooklyn will probably appeal more to readers who like a quiet, cryptic story than to those who prefer less subtlety. The signal achievement of Brooklyn is probably not the character of Eilis but the portrayal of the immigrant as caught between two worlds, each with its pluses and minuses.
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