Picador: Pan Macmillan Australia
I was recommended Brooklyn by a friend whom I usually consult on the realms of fantasy or drama, so as I got further and further into Colm’s novel I found myself waiting for a more intense storyline to emerge and take our protagonist away from the comparatively pedestrian concerns of life in Ireland, America and between. Once it became evident that Eilis was not going to burst from her 20th century chains and become some kind of superhero, I found I immensely enjoyed her story. It was reminscent of dreamy coming of age novels I Capture the Castle, Seventeenth Summer and the Anne of Green Gables series, with the marked difference of a protagonist who didn’t tiredly pander after the views and desires of the reader, and instead remained firmly within her own story. In particular I enjoyed Eilis’ interactions with her law lecturer Mr Rosenblum and his own beautifully unexplained journey to America from what a mysterious book shop owner reluctantly labels “the war.” I thought it was such a great wink at the most important aspect of Ellis Island era New York, namely the great ‘melting pot,’ without having to take the reader out of Eilis’ sometimes amusingly exclusive focus on herself that becomes a real trademark of the novel. This ‘danger of a single story’ is a real trap of transcultural literature but Toibin handles the issue gracefully.
Again in terms of the transcultural, I found the movement of Eilis from Ireland to America on the liner just so enchantingly dripping with metaphor! The long-suffering Georgina merely putting up with her fellow Irishwoman until the tricky ajoining couple maliciously lock Eilis from their shared bathroom, then taking Eilis firmly under her wing, the desperate attempts to fake their way to first class… I find the actual movement from one cultural hub to another intensely interesting, and Toibin satisfies this interest so completely!
Another reason I suppose I was expecting a more fantastical novel were the multiple awards marking the book’s cover. When I finished Brooklyn and had time to contemplate, I found the text more than worthy of its many words of praise, and had to consider why I automatically assumed that a novel with awards was required to involve unbelievable, escapist plots that came to public notice because someone or another was trying to make a play or film from it. Surely its correct that the most worthy pieces of writing captivate audiences despite unlikely subject matters, and find triumph in provoking interest and immersing the cynical in worlds so like our own.
I’m finding it hard to choose a rating to include the specific set of readers I would be able to suggest the text to, while also acknowledging what a solid piece of writing it truly was. I might have to be content signing off with the recommendation that if you ever find a free weekend or want to start a safe for work book club, give Brooklyn a thought. Especially if you share my fondness for any and all books concerning Ireland.