Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín tells the simple story of a girl named Eilis Lacey who reluctantly comes to Brooklyn from a small town in Ireland in the early 1950's. She has no particular desire to leave home and her widowed mother, but jobs are scarce and a chance meeting between her older sister Rose and an Irish priest from Brooklyn leads to the offer of a job. Her mother and Rose encourage her to take it, despite the fact that her mother remarks casually to a friend, “Oh, it'll kill me when she goes”. And Eilis, although she feels that Rose should go instead, can find no way to tell them. This feels SO Irish to me – no one can speak directly about feelings.
The story follows Eilis to Brooklyn, where she experiences homesickness that Tóibín describes so beautifully it will break your heart. But she adapts to her job and her life in a boardinghouse full of Irish women, and eventually even finds romance. And when events call her back to Ireland she is torn between her new life and her old one.
Sounds like it could be the plot of a romance novel, right? Trust me, in Tóibín's hands it is something very different. His style is understated and straightforward – no flashy language, no dramatic revelations. There's humor and pathos, sometimes both in the same paragraph, and, like Eilis herself, it's a mixture of tenderness and toughness. I loved this book so much that I'm almost reluctant to recommend it, because I'm afraid its resonance is just personal for me, and won't strike other readers the same way. But Tóibín is a respected writer, so I hope that this book will be enjoyable to all readers, not just this one.