It is Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. Thus when a job is offered in America, it is clear to everyone that she must go. Leaving her family and country, Eilis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn, and to a crowded boarding house where the landlady’s intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation.
Slowly, however, the pain of parting is buried beneath the rhythms of her new life — until she begins to realize that she has found a sort of happiness. As she falls in love, news comes from home that forces her back to Enniscorthy, not to the constrictions of her old life, but to new possibilities which conflict deeply with the life she has left behind in Brooklyn.
In the quiet character of Eilis Lacey, Colm Tóibín has created one of fiction’s most memorable heroines and in Brooklyn, a luminous novel of devastating power. Tóibín demonstrates once again his astonishing range and that he is a true master of nuanced prose, emotional depth, and narrative virtuosity.
From the Hardcover edition.
Review quote“Tóibín’s genius is that he makes it impossible for us to walk away.”
— The New Yorker
"Brooklyn is Colm Tóibín's most beautifully executed novel to date.... Reading Tóibín is like watching an artist paint one small stroke after another until suddenly the finished picture emerges to shattering effect."
— Times Literary Supplement
"Disarmingly effective and affecting."
— National Post
"A small masterpiece"
— The Guardian
"Tóibín is himself a master — like his countryman William Trevor — of a kind of deep gentleness, even as the darkness falls on his characters.... Here is a writer who quietly watches and reports, shocked at nothing, missing nothing."
— Globe and Mail
From the Hardcover edition.
About the AuthorColm Tóibín’s most recent novel, The Master, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Le prix du meilleur livre étranger, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His other books of fiction include The Story of the Night, The Blackwater Lightship, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the short fiction collection Mothers and Sons. Tóibín was one of the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize judges in Toronto. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion question for Reading Group Guide
1. How would you describe Eilis’ family in terms of their feelings for each other and the ways they communicate?
2. Miss Kelly notes disapprovingly to Eilis that some people come into her shop on a Sunday to buy things, such as soap or toothpaste, that they should have bought during the week. Unspoken, because Miss Kelly and Eilis both understand it, is the Catholic belief that only necessary foods should be bought on Sunday. The Catholicism of all the main characters in the book is so taken for granted that very little is made of it, at least overtly. And yet it determines the characters’ most central values and beliefs. Give some examples of this.
3. Particularly at the beginning of the novel, some crucial scenes are not written. We never see the scene, for example, where Eilis and her family decide that she will go to America. We never see her farewell to her mother, except in a sentence recalled later. Why would Colm Toibin omit these scenes? Do these exclusions work for you? Do they suit – and reflect – the Lacey family, or the society as a whole?
4. The two societies depicted in the novel, mid-century Brooklyn and Enniscorthy, are quite stratified as to class. What are some examples of this? How does Eilis react to the class divisions?
5. Miss Fortini tells Eilis that Broadway is changing and Bartocci’s, the store they work for, must change with it. Post-war America was indeed a time of great social ferment. What are some of the ways the society is evolving, as we encounter them through Eilis’ experience?
6. During a clamorous sale at Bartocci’s, Eilis remembers a scene from home: "she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently." Discuss this as a piece of descriptive writing, and its function in this particular scene. How would you describe Toibin’s chosen style for this book and how it reflects the subject matter?
7. Toibin’s last book, The Master, centred on the novelist Henry James. In Brooklyn, he has chosen a very different central character, a young woman with a gift for bookkeeping and very little life experience. What are some of the techniques he uses to authentically portray this female character?
8. Brooklyn naturally strikes Eilis as very different from Enniscorthy. But there is much continuity, as well as discontinuity, between the two places. Discuss some of the similarities (which Eilis usually takes for granted) and differences she finds.
9. What do you make of the scene where Miss Fiorito helps Eilis choose a bathing suit? How does it contribute to the novel as a whole?
10. Most good novels contain a mixture of plot, character portrayal and social observation. Some are largely plot-driven, others focus predominantly on the characters or the society in general. In which category does Brooklyn fall?
11. By far the largest question in the book is the motivation of Eilis. Describe her character, and her occasional ambivalence. Why do you think, after having accepted Tony’s proposal, she seems to change her allegiance with relative speed once she arrives in Ireland? Does the ease with which she gets involved with Jim surprise you? What do you think Toibin is saying about the conflict between duty and the human heart?
12. At the start of the book, Rose is charismatic, while Eilis is less so. But once Eilis leaves for America, she begins to act more like her sister, becoming more assertive and independent. Once she returns to Ireland after Rose’s death, her mother wants her to wear Rose’s clothing, to live with her as Rose did. Eilis even begins to work for Rose’s old company. There are continuing references to reality, shadows and ghosts in the novel, and Eilis feels that she is becoming Rose’s ghost. Discuss the relationship between the sisters, Mrs. Lacey’s expectations about Eilis, and Eilis’ reaction to those expectations.
13. Eilis’ mother is enigmatic in some ways. How does she strike you in the first part of the book, before Eilis leaves? Does she show a different side of herself, after Eilis returns to Ireland? How much do you think she knows about Eilis and Tony? How do you interpret her response to Eilis’s final decision?
14. Even before the reader discovers that Miss Kelly and Mrs. Kehoe are related, it’s noticeable that they have some traits in common. What are they? Could they possibly derive from something larger than the family connection?
15. Who is a better match for Eilis, Tony or Jim? Why?
16. What do you think would have happened if Miss Kelly had never summoned Eilis to her apartment? Re-imagine another ending for the novel.
Excerpt from bookEilis 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.
From the Hardcover edition.