30 October 2010

From Ireland to BROOKLYN

It's hard to describe a book as a "book club book" without it being interpreted as a slight in some way. Colm Tóibín's BROOKLYN struck me as a good book for a group discussion because my reaction to its ending ranged from "What the..." to "No wait, this is perfect," and I couldn't decide what side I was on.

The book transports the young Eilis Lacey from Ireland to Brooklyn in the middle of last century in search of a job, a diaspora I frankly hadn't been all that aware of despite being a little Irish. (Eilis herself is a little lost to world events, given her befuddlement when a bookseller refers to the fact that her Jewish professor, who has sent Eilis for some study aids, lost his whole family in World War II. "Why would anyone want to kill that man?" he asks.) Stepping out from under the shadow of her confident sister Rose, Eilis follows her brothers into emigration for work, then as BROOKLYN continues becomes a figure of self-actualization more than a journey narrative.

Despite the 50-to-60-year difference between us, Eilis' life isn't all that different from mine: She lives with roommates, goes to work every day in a job that she hopes will lead to the job she really wants (as a bookkeeper for the department store where she's a clerk), worries about her mother without having much influence over her. The major difference between us is the number of parental figures who govern her life: The local priest, who first found her the job, keeps tabs on her even at social dances, her supervisor at the store tries to give her clothing advice, and her nosy live-in landlord Mrs. Kehoe makes cutting comments about her every move. Her first radical act of separation from them is dating a boy who is (horrors!) not Irish, but Bay Ridge Italian, a fact she even has to hide from her judgy roommates.

That amount of social protection seems like overkill for Eilis, a serious and quiet girl, until the end of BROOKLYN when she finds herself without those safeguards. No spoilers, but I was surprised by the way she acted in a couple of instances. Not that Tóibín is suggesting that that para-parental haze was good for her, but... maybe it wasn't bad, necessarily? Those figures (Father Flood, Mrs. Kehoe, etc.) have much more influence on her than her own mother, who is both a tragic and infuriating figure; that struck me as strangely modern as well. The book challenged my expectations as historical fiction per se, but I don't know if that's because of the ending (again... no spoilers), or because I could so easily picture the store she was walking to, or that the white immigrant American experience is so often framed as a 19th century tale with an early happy ending.

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