Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Context is a crucial element to understand for reading any text. Whether this is the context in which a text was created, the context of the author's own biases or judgements, and the context in which you personally are reading the text. Or in the case of this review, the context in which I read Brooklyn.
This is important, because for the last six months I have been inactive on Goodreads due to five major reasons. The first is that I moved to the country at the start of the year. The second is that I became a provisionally-registered English teacher. The third is that on June 25th I married my beautiful wife. The fourth is that I have been busy as a result of the previous three. The fifth however, is that I have during my few moments of free time begun writing consistently on the concept for a novel, and also have taken to blogging over at jterrington22.blogspot.com.au (which is also where my Goodreads reviews will simultaneously be published along with other thoughts, opinions and reviews of other things such as films or video games etc.)
It is in this context that I found myself picking up Brooklyn as a Year Twelve VCE English text. Upon reading through it I found myself impressed by the manner of its construction and the variety of themes it tackles. It is in many ways a highly feminist text (in other words it positively tackles issues that do and have affected women), a beautiful literary historical novel, and an interesting look into one young Irish girl's transitioning life from girlhood to womanhood.
Eilis Lacey is an intriguingly passive character, a young girl offered the opportunity of a lifetime - to travel to Brooklyn where a steady job and better lifestyle awaits her than offered in Ireland. The one issue is that Eilis never wanted to travel to America. She is, at the novel's opening, presented as perfectly content to remain in a state of simplicity in Ireland. However, because her family (her mother and her elder sister Rose) insist, Eilis never complains and obeys their desires. The question hovering over the story from the beginning revolves around whether Eilis can ever become an active agent in her own lifestory. And it is this question which Colm Tóibín seeks to answer as Eilis transformatively finds herself captivated by her own spontaneous love story.
While hardly the most elaborately written novel, there is a beauty in the simplicity that Tóibín constructs his tale with. The entirety of the plot is presented as if the reader is directly hovering above Eilis' shoulder, viewing her every decision and occasionally deriding her naivete. It is this which allows the author the authority to channel secrets and hidden character motives across the plot. (Why did Eilis' sister want Eilis to be the one to travel to America? (view spoiler)[Why does Eilis keep her romance hidden from her family? (hide spoiler)])
The novel rotates through a myriad of thematic content: racism, feminism, family, migration. All themes entirely relevant for today's audiences, given the lack of stability in the modern world due to these themes. It is the ways in which the novel presents these themes however, that is truly excellent: African American women shopping amongst 1950s white-Americans, Eilis gradually developing the ability to choose what she wants, Eilis leaving her family behind.
For all of these reasons, I classify Brooklyn as a satisfying and entirely 'neat' novel. It is a novel that displays technique, editing polish and clever thought without the 'purple prose' that some authors lavish upon their work. It is a novel which some readers may find lacks in terms of its emotional pull, with such a passive protagonist. However, it is the way in which Colm Tóibín presents Eilis as passive which provides a wonderful frame for him to display the potent and important thematic elements.
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