Author: Colm Tóibín.
Genre: Fiction, literature, immigration (fiction), historical fiction, romance.
Publication Date: April 29, 2009.
Summary: Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town 1950s Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest offers to sponsor her in America, she decides she must go, and, leaving her somewhat vulnerable family behind, she sets out for a small rooming house in Brooklyn. Eilis finds work in a local department store and starts taking night classes in a local college, and in the midst of her isolation and the strangeness of an unfamiliar city, she meets Tony and his large Italian family. Slowly he wins her over with his patient charm, but just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland and the need to go back and support her family through the crisis, threatens the promise of her future as she is faced with the most difficult decision of her life.
My rating: 7.5/10
My review: This book didn't grab me right away. I struggled through its beginning because I found it dull. But just as quietly and steadily as the novel is told, as Tony wins over Eilis, it wins you over. What struck me first about it was the incredibly poignant and accurate description of having to move to another country and start over, as well as being so far away from your family for the first time and the pure terror and isolation of it. I have had similar experiences and similar thoughts during them, so the descriptions of Eilis's struggles rung really true to me. In a non-invasive way, mirroring how they only brush against the protagonist's life, the novel touches on all the issues so prevalent in 50s America - the recent Holocaust, the racial tensions, even homosexuality. It doesn't dwell on any of them, however, creating a very realistic feeling of how for a recent immigrant, who is very much caught up in their own problems and struggling with perceptions of a new land, issues like that are not necessarily in any way prevalent, unless and until they become personally so. And what I liked by far the most about this book is how human Eilis is, and how realistically the author inserts that humanity into a very strict, conservative society. I often find a trend of romanticizing the past decades of the 20th century when an author writes about them in retrospect, so it was refreshing to see Eilis cross those boundaries and make those questionable choices (like the sexual choice she makes, and her thoughts and actions when she meets Jim). The last part of the book is entirely unexpected, in a very good way. Again that humanity creeps up, of being far away from someone with new and exciting things, and being unsure of the realness and clarity of the things left behind. The book leaves off on a bit of a melancholy note - it's a little like a skipped breath, and I prefer these types of endings to the clear-cut "happily-ever-after"s. You don't know what life holds for Eilis, you don't know exactly what is going on inside her heart and what it would mean for her going forward. But very subtly the author gives a nod to what he and the heroine believe the future holds, and though it's very slight and very vague, it is still somehow very quite comforting.
♥ As each customer came into the shop on the days when she was being trained, Eilis noticed that Miss Kelly had a different tone. Sometimes she said nothing at all, merely clenched her jaw and stood behind the counter in a pose that suggested deep disapproval of the customer's presence in her shop and in impatience for that customer to go. For others she smiled drily and studied them with grim forbearance, taking the money as though offering an immense favour. And then there were customers whom she greeted warmly and by name; many of these had accounts with her and thus no cash changed hands, but amounts were noted in a ledger, with inquiries about health and comments on the weather and remarks on the quality of the ham or the rashers or the variety of the bread on display from the batch loaves to the duck loaves to the currant breads.
♥ She had already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and then the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
Even though she let these thoughts run as fast as they would, she still stopped when her mind moved towards real fear or dread or, worse, towards the thought that she was going to lose this world for ever, that she would never have an ordinary day again in this ordinary place, that the rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar.
♥ She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America and leaving home for the first time. She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt, and she would keep it from herself if she had to until she was away from them.
There was, she thought, enough sadness in the house, maybe even more than she realized. Sher would try as best she could not to add to it. Her mother and Rose could not be fooled, she was sure, but there seemed to her an even greater reason why there should be no tears before her departure. They would not be needed. What she would need to do in the days before she left and on the morning of her departure was smile, so that they would remember her smiling.
♥ She was nobody here. 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 meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought.
♥ He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like. His manner was so mild and good-humoured, just as her father's had been, that he would not in any case want to complain. She considered writing to him now asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing. It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do. But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her.
None of them could help her. She had lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now.
♥ "I was just going to say that I heard there are coloured women going into Bartocci's," Miss McAdam said.
For a moment no one spoke.
"I heard that too," Sheila Heffernan said after a while in a low voice.
Eilis looked down at her plate.
"Well, we mightn't like them but the Negro men fought in the overseas war, didn't they?" Mrs. Kehoe asked. "And they were killed just the same as our men. I always say that. No one minded them when they needed them."
♥ The music started up and they moved among the dancers. Her companion's eyes, she thought, were too big for his face but then she he smiled at her he appeared too happy for that to matter.
♥ Later, when the dance music because slow and they were dancing close to each other, she looked up and caught his gaze. He had the same serious expression on his face, which made him appear less clownish and boyish than before. Even when he smiled at her, he did not make it seem like a joke, or a way of making fun. It was a warm smile, sincere, and it suggested to her that he was stable, almost mature and that, whatever was happening now, he meant business. She smiled back at him but then looked down and closed her eyes. She was frightened.
♥ When she directed her gaze down she saw that he was not smiling; he seemed nonetheless fully at ease and curious. There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness, she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her as she looked down was the word "delighted." He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but make that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow and nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.
♥ She thought that he was going to cry; she felt almost guilty that she had handed some of her grief to him, and then she felt close to him for his willingness to take it and hold it, in all its rawness, all its dark confusion.
♥ When she came back from receiving communion, Eilis tried to pray and found herself actually answering the question that she was about to ask in her prayers. The answer was that there was no answer, that nothing she could do would be right. She pictured Tony and Jim opposite each other, each of them smiling, warm, friendly, easygoing, Jim less eager than Tony, less funny, less curious, but more self-contained and more sure of his own place in the world. And she thought of her mother now beside her in the church, the devastation and shock of Rose's death having been softened somewhat by Eilis's return. And she saw all three of them - Tony, Jim, her mother - as figures whom sh could only damage, as innocent people surrounded by light and clarity, and circling around them was herself, dark, uncertain.
She would have done anything then, as Nancy and George walked down the aisle together, to join the side of sweetness, certainty and innocence, knowing she could begin her life without feeling that she had done something foolish and hurtful. No matter what she decided, she thought, there would not be a way to avoid the consequences of what she had done or what she might do now.
♥ And at some stage that morning, she thought, he would come to the house in Friary Street and her mother would answer the door and she would stand watching Jim Farrell with her shoulders back bravely and hew jaw set hard and a look in her eyes that suggested both an inexpressible sorrow and whatever pride she could muster.
"She has gone back to Brooklyn," her mother would say. And, as the train rolled past Macmine Bridge on its way towards Wexford, Eilis imagined the years ahead, when these words would come to mean less and less to the man who heard them and would come to mean more and more to herself. She almost smiled at the thought of it, then closed her eyes and tried to imagine nothing more.