52 Books: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

This year, I’ve set myself a goal to read 52 new books – one for every week in 2016. There are no rules on genre, length or style; the only requirement is they have to have been published in the last ten years, and they must be books I haven’t yet read. To see all the titles and blog posts so far, click here.

The first book of 2016 is Colm Tóibín’s Costa Award-winning novel Brooklyn.

I’m afraid I have to start this first 52 Books blog post with another shameful confession. Not only am I a literature graduate who never reads – for a short while, I was also a bookshop employee who brazenly recommended books she’d never even opened.

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I’m sorry. Here I go, shattering the illusion that all booksellers are themselves walking and talking reference books, a breed of human encyclopaedias who can remember and recommend titles that Amazon hasn’t heard of. I am nowhere near as well-read as I pretend to be. I should never have been put in a position of such power.

To the Christmas shoppers of Norwich – I owe you an apology. That Bernard Cornwell I recommended for your dad? Could be as great as I said it was, could be terrible. Sorry. That Chris Riddell book with a shiny cover that I said your granddaughter would adore? We sell loads of them, so I just guessed it was good. That Nigella Lawson cookbook I told you would be perfect for your friend? Well, I watched an episode of the TV show that goes along with it, which practically counts as reading it … right?

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One book I found myself recommending over and over was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. The novel was stacked ten books high on the seasonal offers table, and although it had the misfortune of a film adaptation cover (a moody picture of Atonement‘s Saoirse Ronan and Harry Potter/Star Wars dreamboat Domhnall Gleeson), the blurb promised a cool, deftly told story of identity-building, 1950s social commentary, understated romance and a conflicted female protagonist – all of which score highly on the ‘Books Miranda Might Think About Opening’ test.

Making the most of my generous bookseller discount, Brooklyn was one of the titles I took home with me after work, mentally adding it to the list of things to read in 2016. The decision to bump it up to the first novel of the 52 Books challenge was made when the film trailer popped up, unannounced and uninvited, while I innocently sat in the cinema waiting for Star Wars to begin.

The fashion! The Irish landscape! The young girl making it on her own! The inner turmoil! The Domhnall Gleeson! It looked amazing. I had to see the film. But, as a newly dedicated reader, I couldn’t see the film without reading the book first.

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So how did I get on?

I ventured into Brooklyn expecting a light-hearted, not-too-challenging read, perhaps centred around a love triangle, or at least a romantic conflict. I expected it to be quite elegant, quaint, and to give me a small insight into what it might have been like for people like Eilis Lacey when they first moved to America in the fifties. What I certainly didn’t predict was the relevance of the story to my own life – how much of my own identity-building aligned with Eilis’, and how my experience of homesickness while living in America was better expressed in her voice than I will ever been able to express in my own.

While Brooklyn is primarily a historical novel, exploring the issues faced by first generation Irish immigrants in 1950s New York, it’s also one of human self-discovery. For once, New York isn’t a character in itself, but merely a backdrop to Eilis’ life and internal processes – the city’s iconic landscape is barely described, with the focus falling more on Eilis’ interactions with her Italian-American boyfriend and his character traits than on the location of their dates.

Colm Tóibín also manages to side-step any melodrama or fits of passion that other writers might invent for Eilis. Throughout, the tone is calm and controlled – sometimes Eilis is almost too passive in spite of the huge changes in her life, and about halfway through the novel I found myself wondering where her story was going. But this isn’t a passionate, dramatic tale of a young woman making it on her own. It’s a quiet telling of the surprising easiness of settling into a new life, and one day turning around and realising you cannot pinpoint when you changed, or how, but knowing that the person you are today is wholly different from the person you used to be.

I lived in San Francisco for a year, between summer 2013 and summer 2014. Although yes, it was brilliant and a great experience and I would do it all again in a heartbeat, I felt the full force of homesickness hit me a few months in and I’m not sure if I ever completely recovered from it. Homesickness isn’t missing your mum’s cooking, longing for a decent cup of tea or wishing BBC iPlayer was available outside of the UK – it’s a whole crisis of identity. As cheesy as it sounds, you really do lose your sense of self.

Eilis laments that ‘she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought’ – essentially, the root of homesickness and loss of identity is in the mundane. For me, it was realising that this was my life – doing my laundry at the laundromat, buying the same brand of cereal each week, walking the few blocks to school and back each day. It was my routine, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to me.

At times I felt like an imposter. It was as if I had invented a new Miranda-esque character who looked and sounded like me but moved differently through the streets, and had different goals and a different purpose than the old one. Although I made some fantastic friends who I instantly felt close to, there were times when I questioned if they knew the real me, as my friends at home did. Or was it that the imposter-Miranda was the real me, and the identity I had previously taken on at home had been a false one? Did I belong on the corner of Judah and 37th, waiting for the tram to take me downtown to meet a friend for coffee? Or was I at home when I strapped myself into the front seat of my Corsa in England, heading off to work on a rainy Tuesday morning?

Brooklyn assured me that I was not alone in these insecurities. Having an identity crisis is nothing new, especially if you are in your twenties and have moved away from home – in fact, it’s pretty much a certainty. The American connection may have made Eilis’ experience resonate with me on a deeper level than I was expecting, but ultimately everyone changes and finds it hard to fit into the character they used to be.

In the end (*SPOILER ALERT*) Eilis decides to stick to her new life in Brooklyn, foregoing the opportunity to revisit her old self and settle back into her Enniscorthy identity. I chose the other path (mainly due to Visa requirements and the fact I had to go back to uni in England, but it still felt like a choice, of sorts) and walked straight back into my English self, with the old job, the old bedroom and the old group of friends I had pined for when in the States.

My experience was not as dramatic as Eilis’, I know – if I ever returned to San Francisco and to my San Franciscan life, the UK would still only be a (rather expensive) plane ticket away, whereas I doubt Eilis would take that transatlantic boat journey again. Despite this, though, I really felt the magnitude of her decision. As young women we are often presented with choices and are told that the paths we go down now will influence the rest of our lives – going to university or not, entering into relationships, following a career path, moving somewhere new. The privilege of having sovereignty over our own lives comes with some heavy emotional baggage.

To those customers who bought Brooklyn on my flippant recommendation – I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you found it as light and elegant as I said it would be, but also that you saw past the melancholy tone and romantic plots and got to the real heart of Eilis. I hope you, like me, saw a little bit of yourself in her purposeful, sassy walk through the gate at Ellis Island.

And now I’ve read the book, I’ve also seen the film. Perhaps I’m not as adventurous as Eilis, but as in my own life, I would have stuck with my old self in her situation – as exciting as Brooklyn looked, moody Bill Weasley was really hot in this one. I think we can all agree that whoever decided to go down the movie adaptation route and stick his face on the book cover was a marketing genius.

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3 Comments

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  1. Absolutely wonderful post, I am dying to read it! So torn whether to see the movie first or not, I love Satires Ronan!

    Like

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