On a hill overlooking the Japanese Garden of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is Celebrity Path. Those of some renown who were born or lived in Brooklyn have a stone with their name on it. There was a time when the world seemed to pass through Brooklyn.
Post-World War II is the time setting of Colm Tóibín’s novel “Brooklyn”. It is an Irish emigrant story; although the tale is universal. A young Irish woman, Eilis, is the younger of two girls, whose brothers have left their widow mother for work. Her elder sister Rose is Eilis’ role model. Rose sacrifices her future and arranges with the Church to have Eilis go to Brooklyn to live. Eilis through the auspices of Father Flood works in an Italian retail clothes shop owned by Italians. She lives with other Irish émigré girls in a walk-up owned by an Irish woman who husband left her. Eilis is a smart girl and Father Flood arranges for her to take bookkeeping classes at Brooklyn College. She ultimately meets a boy at a dance.
This is a very enjoyable read. Much like today, this is Brooklyn in its heyday. The prejudices of emigrants and immigrants, and by class, are intertwined in the relationships at work and in the boarding house. Although not unique to the Irish, the characters leave the impression that this is a petty nationality. Eilis stays above the fray, but even for her, she finds comfort in her own.
Age and parenthood is explored in the story. Eilis’ Mom does not want to be left alone, and tries to manipulate Eilis into returning to stay in her Irish hometown. There are some modern themes. Eilis wants a career, not just marriage and kids. Her female supervisor seems to take a physical interest in her. The latter is only by intimation. Although it existed during the period, modern fiction in my view, seems to overcompensate for the absence of such themes from most novels of an earlier time. It could have been omitted from this novel, as it added nothing.
This book is not as thought provoking as “The Testament of Mary”, which I previously reviewed and which was Short-Listed for the Mann Booker Prize this year. “Brooklyn” is pure pleasure reading, and is a page turning success.