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FICTION/Toibin, Colm
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1st Floor FICTION/Toibin, Colm Due Jul 5, 2024
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New York : Scribner 2009.
Main Author
Colm Tóibín, 1955- (-)
1st Scribner hardcover ed
Item Description
"A novel."
Physical Description
262 p. ; 23 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

EVERY now and then, with a thrill of connection, you come across a passage in a book that feels as if it had been written with exact foreknowledge of your state of mind: a soothing, specific prescription for unquiet thoughts. During a long-ago solo trip to Rome - a self-assigned distraction after a difficult break-up - I remember opening George Eliot's "Silas Marner" while sitting at the window of a high room in a cold albergo (once a nuns' cloister) as strains of conversation floated up from the courtyard. Describing her protagonist's new start in a new town, Eliot wrote of the relief that "minds that have been unhinged from their old faith and love" may feel on finding themselves in a "new land, where the beings around them know nothing of their history, and share none of their ideas - where their mother earth shows another lap." In such a setting, she wrote, "The past becomes dreamy because its symbols have all vanished, and the present too is dreamy because it is linked with no memories." For Silas Marner, this "exile" was self-sought. But for Eilis Lacey, the biddable daughter at the center of Colm Toibin's new novel, "Brooklyn," her leave-taking from Enniscorthy, in Ireland's County Wexford, and her resettlement in New York in the fall of 1951 are imposed on her by her energetic, well-meaning older sister, Rose. Young, docile and incurious, unscarred by heartbreak or reversals of fortune, Eilis has no desire or need to quit her widowed mother, her friends, her familiar surroundings. Her "old faith and love" are intact, and she seeks no distance from her memories. But she submits to Rose's plan for her transplanting, bending to a superior force of will, wishing to do what her mother and sister expect of her, wishing to please. "Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbors, the same routines in the same streets," Toibin writes. "She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared." Confused by her family's "almost unnaturally happy" mood in the days before her departure, Eilis is relieved to hear her mother, in response to a friend's casual inquiry, blurt, "Oh, it'll kill me when she goes." But go she must, Eilis assumes, even though she "would have given anything to be able to say plainly that she did not want to go, that Rose could go instead." But the Lacey women cannot speak plainly to one another. "They could do everything," Toibin writes, "except say out loud what it was they were thinking." And so, too young to understand the consequences of her reticence, too obedient to bolt at the dock, too humble to imagine that her own life is her own business, Eilis boards the liner for America, an irrevocable step that her mother, her sister and Eilis herself might never have wished her to make had they thought it through. America is peopled, for the most part, by the descendants of immigrants who had the resolve, the daring and the detachment to leave behind the places and people they had formerly known. But Eilis isn't such a person; detachment isn't part of her makeup. It has been thrust on her by women who are as attached to home and family as she is. What were they thinking? They wouldn't, or couldn't, say. Colm Toibin, born, like Eilis, in Enniscorthy, is an expert, patient fisherman of submerged emotions. His characters and plots vary widely. In his beautiful, painful novel "The Blackwater Lightship," he coaxed a touchy, lone-wolf woman to stiffly re-embrace her mother, their reconciliation precipitated by her brother's battle with AIDS. In his best-known novel, "The Master," he animated the inner world of Henry James. And in his story collection, "Mothers and Sons," he tapped the hidden bonds and vexed motivations of diffident men and women - from thieves, shop owners and farmers to a grandmother who plays favorites and gay men who rally to the side of a friend whose mother has died. In one of these stories, "Famous Blue Raincoat," a woman listens to a song, recorded by her long-dead sister, taken from an album her son has found in the garage. The song "gave her a hint, in case she needed one, of her own reduced self, like one of her negatives upstairs, all outline and shadow, and gave her a clear vision of her sister's face." She did not want that clarity, Toibin adds. "She hoped she would never have to listen to it again." In another story, "A Priest in the Family," an aged mother accepts the fact that her son, a priest, will go on trial for molesting teenage boys. "When people stopped to talk to her, she was unsure if they knew about her son's disgrace, or if they too had become so skilled at the plain language of small talk that they could conceal every thought from her, every sign, as she could from them." Yet when her son urges her to leave town during the trial, to "spare" her, she refuses. "When he lifted his head and took her in with a glance," she observes, "he had the face of a small boy." She tells him: "Whatever we can do, we will do, and none of us will be going away. I'll be here." THROUGH all these books and stories, intimations of attachment, abandonment and strong feeling (felt but rarely spoken) fall like a plumb line. Toibin's new novel stands apart because its protagonist has such an uncritical nature that she doesn't see she has grounds for complaint, much less possess any impulse to initiate confrontation. But slowly, equably, and without malice, Eilis exacts a bittersweet revenge for the expatriation she never intended - or, rather, one unfolds for her unsought, organically. In tracking the experience, at the remove of half a century, of a girl as unsophisticated and simple as Eilis - a girl who permits herself no extremes of temperament, who accords herself no right to self-assertion - Toibin exercises sustained subtlety and touching respect. He shows no condescension for Eilis's passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in her journal. Accompanying her on the ghastly voyage from Ireland to America, where the sea swell has all the passengers green and reeling, he soon brings her to a Brooklyn boarding house run by a respectable Irishwoman. Eilis numbs herself against nostalgia until letters from home awaken her homesickness. Then she grieves. "She was nobody here," she thinks. "It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty." Unlike Silas Marner, unlike intentional voyagers everywhere, Eilis hasn't sought the consolations of anonymity. And so, when she meets a man, an Italian-American named Tony, she does what her instinct dictates: puts down roots. When her family calls her back to Enniscorthy, Tony seems to her like "part of a dream from which she had woken." And yet, back in Ireland, Eilis knows that if she were in New York it would be Enniscorthy that seemed like a "strange, hazy dream." Is it surprising if a seed grows where it lands, once it's been scattered? Can it be helped? In "Brooklyn," Colm Toibin quietly, modestly shows how place can assert itself, enfolding the visitor, staking its claim. Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Library Journal Review

This latest work from Toibin (www.colmtoibin.com), which follows The Master Mothers and Sons (2006), also available from Blackstone Audio, takes place in the early 1950s and centers on Eilis Lacey, who leaves her hometown of Enniscorthy, Ireland, for Brooklyn, NY, in search of work and a new life. Narrator Kirsten Potter's (www.kirstenpotter.com) smooth voice and affinity for accents pull listeners along through the often plodding narrative. A lightweight work of literary fiction from IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Toibin that will appeal to fans of the McCourt brothers and those interested in Irish American history or 1950s Brooklyn. [The Scribner hc was called "more accessible and more sublime than [Toibin's] previous works" and was "highly recommended," LJ 3/15/09.-Ed.]-Donna Bachowski, Orange Cty. Lib. Syst., Orlando, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work. She watched Rose crossing the street from sunlight into shade, carrying the new leather handbag that she had bought in Clerys in Dublin in the sale. Rose was wearing a cream-coloured cardigan over her shoulders. Her golf clubs were in the hall; in a few minutes, Eilis knew, someone would call for her and her sister would not return until the summer evening had faded. Eilis's bookkeeping classes were almost ended now; she had a manual on her lap about systems of accounting, and on the table behind her was a ledger where she had entered, as her homework, on the debit and credit sides, the daily business of a company whose details she had taken down in notes in the Vocational School the week before. As soon as she heard the front door open, Eilis went downstairs. Rose, in the hall, was holding her pocket mirror in front of her face. She was studying herself closely as she applied lipstick and eye make-up before glancing at her overall appearance in the large hall mirror, settling her hair. Eilis looked on silently as her sister moistened her lips and then checked herself one more time in the pocket mirror before putting it away. Their mother came from the kitchen to the hall. "You look lovely, Rose," she said. "You'll be the belle of the golf club." "I'm starving," Rose said, "but I've no time to eat." "I'll make a special tea for you later," her mother said. "Eilis and myself are going to have our tea now." Rose reached into her handbag and took out her purse. She placed a one-shilling piece on the hallstand. "That's in case you want to go to the pictures," she said to Eilis. "And what about me?" her mother asked. "She'll tell you the story when she gets home," Rose replied. "That's a nice thing to say!" her mother said. All three laughed as they heard a car stop outside the door and beep its horn. Rose picked up her golf clubs and was gone. Later, as her mother washed the dishes and Eilis dried them, another knock came to the door. When Eilis answered it, she found a girl whom she recognized from Kelly's grocery shop beside the cathedral. "Miss Kelly sent me with a message for you," the girl said. "She wants to see you." "Does she?" Eilis asked. "And did she say what it was about?" "No. You're just to call up there tonight." "But why does she want to see me?" "God, I don't know, miss. I didn't ask her. Do you want me to go back and ask her?" "No, it's all right. But are you sure the message is for me?" "I am, miss. She says you are to call in on her." Since she had decided in any case to go to the pictures some other evening, and being tired of her ledger, Eilis changed her dress and put on a cardigan and left the house. She walked along Friary Street and Rafter Street into the Market Square and then up the hill to the cathedral. Miss Kelly's shop was closed, so Eilis knocked on the side door, which led to the upstairs part where she knew Miss Kelly lived. The door was answered by the young girl who had come to the house earlier, who told her to wait in the hall. Eilis could hear voices and movement on the floor above and then the young girl came down and said that Miss Kelly would be with her before long. She knew Miss Kelly by sight, but her mother did not deal in her shop as it was too expensive. Also, she believed that her mother did not like Miss Kelly, although she could think of no reason for this. It was said that Miss Kelly sold the best ham in the town and the best creamery butter and the freshest of everything including cream, but Eilis did not think she had ever been in the shop, merely glanced into the interior as she passed and noticed Miss Kelly at the counter. Miss Kelly slowly came down the stairs into the hallway and turned on a light. "Now," she said, and repeated it as though it were a greeting. She did not smile. Eilis was about to explain that she had been sent for, and to ask politely if this was the right time to come, but Miss Kelly's way of looking her up and down made her decide to say nothing. Because of Miss Kelly's manner, Eilis wondered if she had been offended by someone in the town and had mistaken her for that person. "Here you are, then," Miss Kelly said. Eilis noticed a number of black umbrellas resting against the hallstand. "I hear you have no job at all but a great head for figures." "Is that right?" "Oh, the whole town, anyone who is anyone, comes into the shop and I hear everything." Eilis wondered if this was a reference to her own mother's consistent dealing in another grocery shop, but she was not sure. Miss Kelly's thick glasses made the expression on her face difficult to read. "And we are worked off our feet every Sunday here. Sure, there's nothing else open. And we get all sorts, good, bad and indifferent. And, as a rule, I open after seven mass, and between the end of nine o'clock mass until eleven mass is well over, there isn't room to move in this shop. I have Mary here to help, but she's slow enough at the best of times, so I was on the lookout for someone sharp, someone who would know people and give the right change. But only on Sundays, mind. The rest of the week we can manage ourselves. And you were recommended. I made inquiries about you and it would be seven and six a week, it might help your mother a bit." Miss Kelly spoke, Eilis thought, as though she were describing a slight done to her, closing her mouth tightly between each phrase. "So that's all I have to say now. You can start on Sunday, but come in tomorrow and learn off all the prices and we'll show you how to use the scales and the slicer. You'll have to tie your hair back and get a good shop coat in Dan Bolger's or Burke O'Leary's." Eilis was already saving this conversation for her mother and Rose; she wished she could think of something smart to say to Miss Kelly without being openly rude. Instead, she remained silent. "Well?" Miss Kelly asked. Eilis realized that she could not turn down the offer. It would be better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing. "Oh, yes, Miss Kelly," she said. "I'll start whenever you like." "And on Sunday you can go to seven o'clock mass. That's what we do, and we open when it's over." "That's lovely," Eilis said. "So, come in tomorrow, then. And if I'm busy I'll send you home, or you can fill bags of sugar while you wait, but if I'm not busy, I'll show you all the ropes." "Thank you, Miss Kelly," Eilis said. "Your mother'll be pleased that you have something. And your sister," Miss Kelly said. "I hear she's great at the golf. So go home now like a good girl. You can let yourself out." Miss Kelly turned and began to walk slowly up the stairs. Eilis knew as she made her way home that her mother would indeed be happy that she had found some way of making money of her own, but that Rose would think working behind the counter of a grocery shop was not good enough for her. She wondered if Rose would say this to her directly. Excerpted from Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.