Tóibín’s last novel, The Master, was an expert portrait of Henry James, but his latest novel may be his most Jamesian yet. Brooklyn, set in the 1950’s, charts the growth from innocence to experience, from small-town Ireland to multi-cultural Brooklyn, and is a tender and affecting work, marvelously subtle and deeply moving. Eilis Lancey, as the novel opens, lives a quiet and modest life in Enniscorthy with her widowed mother and older, livelier sister, Rose, whom Eilis describes as becoming “more glamorous every year.”
At thirty, Rose is something of a role model to her younger sister; stylish, confident, and though “she had had several boyfriends, she remained single.” Shortly after landing a job with the notorious Miss Kelly, Eilis is plucked – thanks to Rose’s connections, it is implied – by an Irish Priest to come and work in the exotic Brooklyn borough of New York City. Once there, however, Eilis rapidly succumbs to homesickness: “it was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again.”
1950’s America is vividly conjured by Tóibín; it’s the time of Singin’ in the Rain, of an influx of women’s fashion, of dances populated by men “dressed in brightly coloured suits with their hair slicked back with oil” and who looked like “film stars.” But it is also a time of racial tensions: Bartocci’s, the store Eilis works at, announces that they will be among a minority of stores that welcome “Coloured” people. The ensuing tension of the presence of African-Americans in the shop is brilliantly captured by Tóibín:
As the week went on more of them came and as each one entered Eilis noticed a change in the atmosphere in the store, a stillness, a watchfulness; no one else appeared to move when these women moved in case they would get in their way; the other assistants would look down and seem busy and then glance up…
When Eilis becomes involved with a short, excitable Italian boy named Tony, the transition from innocence to experience becomes more literal as she loses her virginity and becomes sexually aware of herself. In fact, one of the strength’s of the novel is precisely Eilis’ expanding consciousness, of her realization of the powers such a consciousness offers her (what people will know or never know, based on what she decides to tell them). “You have changed,” Eilis’s friend Nancy tells her. “You seem more grown up and serious. And in your American clothes you look different. You have an air about you.”
Eilis Lancey does have an air about her, and it is to the great credit of Tóibín’s masterly craft that this young woman, whose situation is, after all, not entirely unfamiliar to us, comes to life so fluently and convincingly, just as she comes to life to herself. Brooklyn is an assured achievement that draws its readers in so that, toward the end, when tragedy strikes, it does so unexpectedly.
About the author:
Morten Hoi Jensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. He has studied literature and creative writing at the University of Kent in Canterbury and the University of Miami in Florida. From 2008 to 2009 he was chief editor of Mangrove, the creative writing journal of the University of Miami. He is an associate member of the PEN American Center and maintains a website www.mhjensen.com