Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2009

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

BrooklynA slim, deceptively simple novel that I could not put down.  And although it’s a long, long time since I read Portrait of a Lady, I knew when I finally finished Brooklyn that it references that Henry James‘ novel where Isabel chooses in the end not to be shoe-horned into marriage….

(Would I have realised this if I hadn’t read The Master? Possibly not, but it was an irresistible conclusion, even before I found the occasional online review that recognised the same counterpoints.)


The difference is that in Brooklyn, Eilis is shoe-horned into almost everything.  She isn’t manipulated by schemers, but by nice young men who are quite sure that they know what is best for her.  A compliant, quiet girl, she does not want to emigrate, but when her mother, her sister Rose and the local priest decide that it is best for her because there is no work for her in 1950s Ireland, she goes, meekly, without even being able to tell them how she feels. 

She is a very self-contained person. As with many of Toibin’s characters, we know all her doubts and uncertainties, but she never reveals them to anyone.  Once in Brooklyn, she is bullied by Mrs Kehoe, her landlady, and she goes along with everything that is asked of her.  Fr. Flood organises her job and her social life, even manipulating her into spending Christmas Day serving homeless old men as an act of charity, instead of being about and about making friends of her own.  At work, which is tedious, the big excitement occurs when Coloured women come into the store, and I realised that this must have been when the Civil Rights Movement began though it isn’t mentioned.  It is curious to read about the reactions of the other shopgirls, but Eilis admires the elegance and composure of the women, though Toibin notes that they never raised their eyes to look anyone in the face.

When there is a dance, Mrs Kehoe makes it clear that she should not go with Diane and Patty (who are ‘fast’ but have fun) and she has to go instead with Delores, a dreary ‘scrubber’ destined forever to be a  ‘wallflower’. It is at the dance, however, that she meets Tony, an Italian, and, discreetly, she begins to go out with him.  She is a bit dismayed by the poverty of his family, because their apartment is cramped and his parents sleep in the kitchen.  Still, his prospects improve when they buy a plot of land on Long Island, with plans to build five houses: one for the parents, three to sell, and one for Eilis and Tony and the brood of children he wants her to have.  These premature suggestions about marriage dismay her too, but he doesn’t pressure her, until the crisis changes everything…

There are enormous expectations of Eilis.  She is enrolled at night school three nights a week, to get her qualification as a book-keeper.  At the same time, the assumption is that it is the girls in the family who are expected to take care of their widowed mother as she ages.  There is never any question that the brothers can or will leave their jobs in England – even though Eilis is better educated and has better prospects than any of them.   Her choices are  limited by these expectations, by her own reserve and by her habit of letting things drift.  In the end. she knows that whatever she does, someone will be hurt.

The melancholy tone of this novel is just perfect, and I liked the open-ended conclusion.  The malice of Miss Kelly forces Eilis to act decisively, but what waits for her is not clear.    While in the end she has no choice about what to do, she knows that some of her actions – and the web of communication that crosses the ocean – may have unwelcome repercussions.

Are those photos in her suitcase insurance?

PS 29.8.09 For a superb anaylsis of this novel see Kerry’s post at Hungry like a Wolf.


  1. I have to say this book is definitely on my wishlist at the moment! Thanks for a wonderful review!


  2. Thanks, Mr S!


  3. […] The Booker Longlist has been announced. Those I’ve reviewed Colm Toibin – Brooklyn On my TBR AS Byatt – The Children’s Book On my wish list anyway Hilary Mantel – […]


  4. Glad you enjoyed this book so much despite having read The Master first :).


  5. […] only ones I’ve read are Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville, though on the TBR lies The Children’s […]


  6. […] real surprise, eh?  Pity about Brooklyn, […]


  7. Lisa,

    Because I had not read the book when this came out, I skipped the “spoilers” review. In fact, I forgot to circle back around until after writing my own analysis (with spoilers) of the book. Thank you for adding additional depth and noticing details I missed. Good review, very good book.


  8. Thanks, Kerry – and I loved reading your analysis. I’ve added the link as a postscript to my post so that it can be easily found.
    I also like the way you have asserted your position about short reviews and analysis. I try to remember to signpost spoilers too because I like being able to discuss the book without ruining it for others.
    Cheers, Lisa


  9. Thank you very much, Lisa, for the link and the substance of your comment (and, again, the excellent analysis).


  10. […] Please check out ANZ LitLovers Blog for additional analysis that captures references and elements I […]


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