With good books, it really is better to read them late, long after everyone else you know already has, than to never have read them at all. At least that’s how I felt when I finished Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, which got (as I remember) wonderful reviews in 2009, and which my friend Anne Wyckoff just adored (and I always listen when she recommends something for me to read). It’s a supremely quiet and strangely affecting novel, set in the 1950s. Toibin’s subjects are love, and family, and obligation (to yourself and those you love and how to decide which is the more important). It’s one of those books that you have to read slowly, in order to savor the strength and the powerful simplicity of the writing. I had a weirdish experience while I was reading it, almost as though I had entered a large and empty gothic cathedral, where the atmosphere was hushed and all sounds were muted. Yet I realized that almost everything of importance occurs within those four walls, just as so much of what’s important in Tóibín’s lyrical novel is never said at all: almost everything that matters is written, if you will, between the lines on the pages.
I have to tell you, though, that the plot doesn’t sound prepossessing (maybe that’s why I took so long to pick it up and read it). At the suggestion of a priest coming home from his Brooklyn parish to Ireland for a visit, Eilis Lacey leaves her family and friends in her small Irish town and moves to Brooklyn, where she lives in a boarding house with other young women (all Irish), all watched over (and disapproved of) by “Ma” Kehoe, works days in a department store, and attends night school to get a degree in accounting. Along the way, she meets a young Italian man and falls in love with him.
But it’s Tóibín’s economy of language and his uncanny ability to bring to life both Eilis’s home in Ireland and her adopted city that make this novel so very special.