- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

By Colm Toibin
Scribner, $25, 272 pages

This is a rare and lovely book in which the author has written a story so simple and poignant that its essence is captured by its last lines. Eilis Lacey is envisioning how her mother will explain to a distraught young man her unexpected departure from her Irish hometown with the brief words “She has gone back to Brooklyn.”

“Eilis imagined the years ahead when these words would come to mean less and less to the man who heard them and would come to mean more and more to herself.”

It is at once a beginning and an ending in the life of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant who comes to America in the Fifties from the town of Enniscorthy, where Colm Toibin himself was born. It was a time when immigrants were flooding to the United States, and the author paints a vivid picture of the demanding world that awaited them.

“Brooklyn” is a classic tale of an immigration that was not as harsh as that which many experienced because of the protective mechanism exerted by family and church. Eilis arrives at Ellis Island a tentative creature who had never expected to live anywhere except in her hometown. What she becomes is less of a surprise than evidence of the kind of instinct for social and financial survival shown by many of the post-World War II immigrants.

While employment was difficult in Eilis’ Irish village, she was not fleeing starvation or abuse, so while her confidence level was frail, it was there. And it was backed by Rose. The driving force in her life — and, ironically, in the book — is her sister, the confident and charismatic Rose who could probably have found success anywhere. But Rose decides that she will stay in Ireland as the support of her widowed mother and that her younger sister Eilis should make her way in America. Rose is a vivid cameo of a character whose strength is underscored by her influence over her malleable sister, even from a distance.

While Rose stays home, Eilis braves an Atlantic crossing made hellish by seasickness to make an entry into the new world that is eased by her shrewd sister’s contacts in a Catholic church in Brooklyn. Rose remains a force in the background as the docile Eilis finds her place in a setting almost as disciplined as her home in Ireland. Father Flood, a local priest who keeps in touch with Rose, plays a father figure for the reserved young girl and also oversees her education at night classes. Her lodgings are supervised by a formidable and protective landlady — again the recommendation of Father Flood — and her work in a department store is equally structured.

Yet Mr. Toibin skillfully and subtly builds the personality of Eilis, as she demonstrates a strength she never suspected she possessed while carving a niche for herself in a dramatically different setting. Her romance with Tony, the handsome young plumber, and her development of a relationship with his Italian family, are masterfully drawn. Moreover, Eilis’ developing character becomes increasingly clear. She deals with Tony on her own terms, showing a certain wariness to a commitment of which she is not entirely certain.

Her decision to marry him is made almost unemotionally, as though she has assessed the advantages of her potential role in life as his wife and as a part of his Italian community and found them acceptable, if not especially romantic. But her newfound strengths are severely tested when tragedy strikes in Ireland and she must return to deal with a world without Rose, and a mother who assumes that Eilis will automatically acknowledge her previous responsibilities and resume her role in the world as she once knew it.

It is significant and fascinating that Eilis, who has kept Rose informed through her letters of what is happening in America, does not reveal or discuss with her mother her marriage to Tony. It is also an indication of how far Eilis has come as a woman that she immediately becomes more socially prominent in the little Irish town, using what she has learned in America to reinvent and re-establish herself in this less sophisticated environment. She not only tells no one of her marriage, she demonstrates a surprising cynicism by allowing herself to become at least superficially enamored of a young man who is considered a locally desirable marital match.

The author makes clear that this is a new Eilis who has returned from America, and there is a point at which she is clearly torn between Tony, the man she has married, and Jim Farrell, the Irishman who is in love with her. This is a tougher Eilis and when she is forced to make that decision, her reasoning verges on cold-blooded as it suggests how close she came to destroying the new roots she has made in another land. Her mother, who has lost her battle to regain her remaining daughter, acknowledges reality when she tells her she will only say goodbye to her once.

“There had been something, she thought, so steely and implacable about her mother’s insistence that she wanted to say goodbye only once that Eilis knew it would be pointless now to ask for her blessing or whatever it was she wanted from her before she left this house.” Eilis gets on with her packing and chooses not to say goodbye to Jim. She leaves him a note explaining that she is married. What she does not and will never explain is why she didn’t tell him that before.

She envisions her mother “with her shoulders back bravely and her jaw set hard” as she faces the frantic Jim in the morning to tell him Eilis has gone back to Brooklyn. Yet Eilis also knows that in the end, she will remember those words longer than Jim will.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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