4 out of 5: In Colm Toibin’s latest novel, Brooklyn, young Eilis Lacey leaves the struggling economy of her small hometown in southeast Ireland to forge a new life in Brooklyn, New York. In unadorned prose, Toibin describes the daily struggles and triumphs of Eilis’s life in the unfamiliar, and often inhospitable, urban environment of her new home. In many ways, Eilis’s story is a small, insignificant one, but it’s one that was repeated thousands of times in the 1940s and 50s. The backdrop of these repetitions, coupled with Toibin’s deft use of just the right amount of historical detail, lends resonance to Eilis’s journey. The question at the root of Brooklyn, and the one that drives much of the action, is whether it’s possible to truly leave home.
This is not a book filled with impressive literary effects. The chronology is simple and the story is familiar. Nevertheless, Toibin’s gift for storytelling maintains the momentum, particularly in the last third of the book when Eilis is faced with a difficult decision. Eilis rarely takes initiative, instead merely reacting to what happens around her, including the overtly manipulative actions of stronger characters. Some readers will find Eilis’s passivity annoying, but this trait seems a natural result of her sheltered upbringing. A more hard-charging personality wouldn’t ring as true. Overall, Brooklyn is an emotionally rich story about leaving home and starting over.