Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín is one of those writers who works slowly and never disappoints. I think of him as a sort of Irish Ishiguro: five years per novel, and always on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. His last novel, The Master (2004), was the best book in a strong shortlist, and his previous novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) effortlessly held up when I revisited it a couple of years ago. His new novel then comes heavily weighted with expectation, not least for his new publishers Penguin, who are hoping this will be Tóibín’s “break-out novel” which “will do for him what Atonement did for McEwan.” Whether that is something he would wish for is a debate for another day.

Brooklyn divides its story, and its character, between the borough of New York and Tóibín’s favoured stamping ground of Enniscorthy, in Wexford, south-east Ireland. (“I thought it was dreary,” he said of this landscape in an interview, “but it somehow stayed in my memory.”) The character is Eilis Lacey, whom the Penguin publicity materials boldly compare to Emma Bovary and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. No pressure now. Eilis lives a limited existence in Enniscorthy in the 1950s, directed by her mother and outshone by her sister Rose, who is forever going off to play golf. Eilis must content herself with a Sunday job in a local shop for local people, run by the miserable Miss Kelly: “Eilis realised that she could not turn down the offer. It was better than nothing and, at the moment, she had nothing.”

‘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.’

Soon, however, Eilis finds that other plans have been made for her, when an Irish-American priest comes to visit and suggests that she could come ‘across the water’ to work in Brooklyn.

Eilis felt like a child when the doctor would come to the house, her mother listening with cowed respect. … And then it occurred to her that she was already feeling that she would need to remember this room, her sister, this scene, as though from a distance. In the silence that had lingered, she realised, it had somehow been tacitly arranged that Eilis would go to America. Father Flood, she believed, had been invited to the house because Rose knew that he could arrange it.

Already Eilis is displaying her primary characteristic: of being utterly passive in her own destiny, so much so that at times the reader wants to shake her. She rarely makes decisions: until the very end of the book. Like a sailing vessel she floats and sinks with the tide, subject to the influence of others: Father Flood; Mrs Kehoe, her landlady in Brooklyn; or Georgina, her cabin-mate on the uncomfortable journey across the Atlantic.

Indeed the sea-crossing section of the book, a superb toe-curling comic set piece featuring a communal bathroom and motion sickness, is significant in showing that Tóibín can flex his narrative muscles and entertain the reader. This is just as well, because much of the rest of the book is written in a low-key tone which, while entirely appropriate to Eilis’s personality, frankly lacks oomph. In his tale of frustration and limited lives, Tóibín seems most of all to be channelling William Trevor, a writer I have often thought (warning: the following sacrilegious statement may shock) somewhat overrated.

Which is not to deny the high expertise of Tóibín’s ability. Brooklyn is a relatively short book at 250 pages, but each page tells us so much about Eilis, her story and her surroundings – while the prose remains fluent and clear – that I began to wonder if I had missed some hidden compartments. This is managed, too, with relatively little explicit signposting of Eilis’s emotions.

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.

Brooklyn achieves its own modest aims, but lacks the ambition of The Master. However like that novel, it has an integrity which means that it reads like a portrait of a person, rather than a fictional character. It dips its toe in the social issues of the times, such as racism in America. It also has a unity of purpose, as a result of which Eilis Lacey’s story sticks in the mind, even if the jury will remain out for the next century or so on whether she does have the longevity of Tess or Emma. The book’s elegance, straightforward narrative and emotional conclusion may well give it an appeal that earns Tóibín a deserved wider readership. Nonetheless I couldn’t help wishing that, like its heroine on board the translantic ship, it might have gone out on deck a little more often, and got its hair messed up a bit.


  1. This sounds like something I’d like to read.

    Incidentally, and sotto voce… Colm Tóibín: how would one pronounce that? I could take a stab at it, but having spent yesterday evening in a Mexican restaurant being mocked for my pronunciation of chimichanga, I’m a little accent-shy.

  2. Well Rob, Colm is pronounced as it appears, though some would extend it to sound more like column, and Tóibín is pronounced Toe-been. At least that’s my pronunciation, and I’m sticking to it.

    Thanks for the useful link probooklover. I haven’t read Gale’s review but I always have my doubts about those Waterstone’s Books Quarterly reviews. It’s hard to get away from the fact that they’re a retailer with an interest in people buying the books, and I’ve only seen one review in all my time of reading (well, skimming) the magazine that I can recall which wasn’t a full-throated recommendation. (The bookseller reviews on their website are more reliable.) Then again, the press reviews of Brooklyn have been fairly orgiastic too. It’s a very good book, but it’s not that very good.

  3. I’ve been looking forward to this book and review for some weeks, since I knew you had a proof copy. Thanks for getting it up a few days early — and I very much appreciate your even-handed approach. It does seem like the publicists have rather messed things up with bad comparisons. I share your high opinion of Toibin but have certainly found with his past books that the first read often leaves questions — that seem to resolve themselves with a month or two of thought, setting up a reread somewhere down the road. (He would definitely be on my shortlist of authors whose scenes suddenly show up in memory months or even years later.) Optimist that I am, it looks like this book has the potential to join that impressive roster. Can’t wait until it arrives.

  4. I was terribly disappointed in the novel. Much too romancey for my tastes. Like the comment about getting the hair messed up a bit. Exactly!

  5. Thanks for your comment, Guy, and for visiting my blog.

    Kevin, although this is technically an early review (official publication date being 7 May), the book is widely available in the shops in the UK, and has been reviewed in the newspapers already. Clearly not under strict embargo as the new Ishiguro was. I will be interested to read your thoughts on it.

  6. Haha Devil’s advocate strikes again! 🙂

    Honestly I found The Master to be an incredibly dull book – stifling and stuffy. The best book in a strong shortlist? better than Cloud Atlas? hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  7. I may revisit Colm Toibin again. I read one of his early books, can’t remember which one. It was workmanlike, but it didn’t capture me. Then when I saw “The Master” win the Booker, I was tempted to read that, but I refuse to read any book about Henry James, an author that I for the most part detest. Maybe now is the time to revisit.

    1. Actually, Tony S., The Master did not win the Booker in 2004. It went to Alan Holinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. (ah. the memories of such a great year)

  8. Oh, that’s a shame. But saying it doesn’t match up to The Master is no great dispraise. Eilis doesn’t sound much like Emma Bovary – Emma certainly couldn’t be described as passive. Still looking forward to it, though. I emerged from reading The Master giddy with delight at the tragedy of it all.

    He’s a very generous blurb-provider, Toibin, isn’t he? I only picked up Amongst Women by John McGahern recently because Toibin is quoted on the back saying that McGahern is ‘the one Irish writer everyone should read’ (or something like that). I’m glad I did. It’s such a very very good book. Shame it lost out on the Booker to Possession. It deserves a wider audience.

  9. Just out of curiosity, what is the average age of these blog readers.

    (Sadly I didn’t like Amongst Women too much either again beautiful writing but rigid in output, however i will be re-reading it again in the near future)

  10. I’m afraid I’m getting on a bit, deucekindred: I’ll be turning forty in thirteen short years.

    Amongst Women was beautifully written in the best sense of that word: precise and vivid, unlike, say, a writer like Sebastian Barry, whose writing I find frustrtaingly inexact and florid.

  11. Just out of curiosity, what is the average age of these blog readers.

    What an interesting question, dk – I suppose I have an uninformed impression of the ages of some regular commenters (sorry Sam, I’d have added ten to your age: take it as a compliment) and know the ages of others (Kevin), but is this relevant to our tastes? I think it often is: I have definitely come to appreciate some writers more, and others less, as I get older. I’m 36 by the way.

    In any case, I am with Sam on both Amongst Women and The Master. Sadly I’m led to believe that the former is the best of McGahern’s novels by far, though I would still like to read others of his (and have his memoir and collected stories on the shelves). Cloud Atlas is an impressive book, no question, but to me its brilliant effects did not come together into a satisfying whole – whereas The Master, though far less showy, was a fully achieved performance.

    And yes Sam, Tóibín is a generous blurber, along with Rushdie and Coetzee. I wonder how they ever get any work done. I’m afraid that, where once their praise would have sold a book to me, it has become so weakened by being spread so thin and wide that I no longer take much notice of any of the three.

    Tony, I urge you to give Tóibín another shot. Brooklyn would be a fine reintroduction.

  12. That’s why I asked. I was wondering if my dislike for ‘elegantly’ written novels has to do with the fact that I’m six months into my 30th year. I was assuming the older one gets the more one appreciates subtlety. At the moment I prefer more experimental stuff like Pynchon, Safran Foer, Ali Smith and so on. I just find it more excited. Although I did love Roth’s The Plot Against America so maybe there is a slight change on the way 😀

  13. I’m surprised that Penguin feel he needs to “break through”: I’d assumed Tóibín was already doing pretty well–wasn’t the success of ‘The Master’ part of the problem for David Lodge’s Henry James book? And I could do without someone doing a movie of ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ and cocking it up, frankly, as it was such a lovely, lovely book.

  14. I don’t think age has much to do with literary appreciation. I am sixty years old. I really enjoyed reading “Canterbury Tales” and “Don Quixote”. That doesn’t mean I was around when Chaucer and Cervantes wrote them. I also enjoy reading David Mitchell, Amelie Nothomb, Michel Faber, Salley Vickers, Sebastian Barry, Colson Whitehead, and Junot Diaz. There are other young writers I don’t appreciate as well. Good writing never goes out of style.

  15. I do think some exceptional authors — and Henry James is a very good example — take some personal life experience before you can see how good they really are (this comes from a 61-year-old). So when younger readers tell me he is boring, I ask them just to put the opinion on the shelf for a decade or two and then give him a shot. I suspect that also may be true of The Master, a book that I quite like, but which I think does take a certain amount of life experience to truly appreciate.

    And I am of mixed minds about how it works the other way. Like Tony S., I quite like authors such as Mitchell and Diaz. I find Pynchon to be unreadable — I do think that has more to do with the genre than age but don’t really know. And I have no desire to even try the prolific and popular Douglas Coupland — which means I can’t call him a “bad” author but don’t really feel I am missing anything.

  16. Going by reviews of this, I almost thought about putting a bet on it for the 2009 Booker. Surely Tóibín is due one. But I don’t know when or if I’ll read it, because I’m so overloaded at the moment. I have a copy of Wolf Hall still waiting to be looked at.

  17. Sometimes ‘boring’ can be, for some people, synonym of ‘literary’. I was wondering, would you read poetry for the sake of entertainment? What Toibin did in The Master was so poetic, really; Henry James seen as a ghost (those delicate insights with Hammond!). And it’s true that with age we start appreciating other details, when you find yourself re-reading, for example. ‘A propos’… I’m almost (not yet) 38

  18. Hm, I still have The Story of the Night at home unread, and sadly this one hasn’t on the description grabbed my imagination, so I suspect I’ll keep for now to the unread Toibin I already have (I pronounce it Toe-Been too). Great review as ever, but the book sounds a little dull perhaps.

    On age, I’m 41 for what that’s worth, but I enjoyed Henry James far more as a teenager than I do now. Age may be a factor, but I suspect some won’t like him however old they may be and some will respond however young. I agree with Tony S really, good writing never goes out of style, and a great writer can take us to the truth of experiences we may never have had ourselves (whether due to age, circumstance or whatever reason).

  19. Then again, perhaps Max is like Benjamin Button, confirming the hypothesis. I would offer the observation that when you are young really good writing helps you understand what the world might be; when you are older (you youngsters around 40 don’t know this yet) it helps you appreciate and better understand the world you have experienced, while still looking ahead to more.

  20. Wonderfully put Kevin, from this 55 yr old. I didn’t know it was coming but I can’t believe how much I am enjoying this phase of my reading life, enough life experience to make very different sense of it all and hopefully plenty more to come.
    John I’m looking forward to reading this one but just wanted to ask if you feel likewise, has the Booker longlist ever felt more certain in terms of selection than this year?

  21. I don’t know dgr – certainly there are more big and medium sized names releasing books this year than at any time since 2005 – Byatt, Tóibín, Mantel, Atwood, Dyer etc – but I don’t think we can presume them all to be shoo-ins. Having said that, this year’s panel seems to be more traditionally ‘literary’ (if I can put it that way) than last year’s. My dark horse tip for the longlist incidentally, is Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. He’s a rising star and if he doesn’t make the Booker list this year, he will do before long.

  22. …being utterly passive in her own destiny, so much so that at times the reader wants to shake her

    Nearly laughed out loud when I read this as I’d just written virtually the same thing in my own comments on this book!

    Brooklyn is actually the first novel by Tóibín I’ve read. I’m encouraged by the comments here not to make it my last despite my not-altogether positive impression of the book.

  23. Thanks Flossie – great minds think alike! I do recommend both The Blackwater Lightship (see my review elsewhere on this blog) and The Master.

  24. Hi John, I finally got around to reading your review, but the comments are just as entertaining! I tend to find your commenters (is that the right word – it kind of looks wrong) are by and large male. But I’d never really thought about the average age of everyone (I’m hitting the big *whisper it* 4-0 in a couple of months time). Staggered to discover the lovely Tony S is 60! I firmly believe that my reading tastes have matured over the years and a lot of the stuff I read in my early 20s, cheap thrillers, loads of Stephen King and the like, I would absolutely detest now!

    But back to Toibin. As you know I loved “The Blackwater Lightship” but have distant memories of not particularly appreciating “The Heather Blazing”. Mind you, it was probably one of the first literary novels I had read outside of school and, as I said earlier, probably a little out of my comfort zone at the time. I’m intrigued to re-read it to see whether I’d like it more now.

    I have since purchased “Brooklyn” (it was Amazon’s “deal of the week”, how could I resist?) and want to see if it compares to John McGahern, who is without a doubt my favourite writer of all time, because so many of the press reviews are naming Toibin as the rightful successor. (In terms of McGahern’s books, everyone mentions “Amongst Women”, which is a truly brilliant read, but my personal favourite is “The Barracks”, which I read a couple of years back and *still* think about from time to time. A really emotional book, it has to be said, particularly when I read his “Memoir” and discovered it was pretty much about his mother, who died of breast cancer and was treated appallingly by McGahern’s father because of her illness.)

  25. Thanks kimbofo. I picked up McGahern’s The Dark last week, which I think was his second novel, The Barracks being his first. Both have been reissued by Faber in new covers along with Amongst Women, so I’m guessing those three must be widely regarded as his best. I also have his Memoir and Creatures of the Earth: Selected Stories, though they will have to wait until I’ve read more of his novels.

  26. “The Dark” is depressing and my least favourite of them all. It was his second novel, but in my opinion it wasn’t quite as accomplished as his first. I also have “Creatures of the Earth: Selected Stories” but as yet have not read it. I don’t want to be in the position where I have no more McGahern to read!

  27. Radio 4 just did this one as ‘Book at Bedtime’ and I was enthralled. I agree, it is a ‘portrait of a person’ but what’s wrong with that? I saw the book more in terms of Jane Austen; an examination of that major point of choice really, although Eilis doesn’t really have much. Listening to the end has made me want to read the book despite what others might say.
    Well done Colm !

  28. I’m glad you liked it Beth. In fact when I described Brooklyn as “a portrait of a person” I meant that as praise! – in that Eilis seems real (a person not a character) perhaps because she doesn’t do any of the unbelievable things we normally see in fiction.

  29. I’ve just finished Brooklyn and was interested to see if others felt as I do about it. This review and the comments show they do. I loved the hair messed up and wanting to shake the passive Eilis (how is that pronounced?). I was also interested in the comments on The Master which I’ve yet to read, but in which I am interested. Another fictional account of Henry James was published in South Africa in the same year called The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns. I found it engrossing, and would like to know if there is any awareness of it in the UK and if so, what the response has been. Heyns subsequently wrote another book called Bodies Politic – a fictional account of the Pankhurst women, which is also a great read. You can read a bit about them at these links: and

  30. Hi Annabel, thanks for your comments. As far as I can tell, The Typewriter’s Tale has not been published in the UK, nor have any of Heyns’ other books. Here we had David Lodge’s fictionalisation of James, Author, Author!, also published in the same year, which ended up rather overshadowed by Tóibín’s book.

    Eilis is pronounced “Ail-ish”, more or less.

  31. I really enjoyed this. Eilis was totally convincing: her dilemmas felt very real, her inner conflicts unfolding naturally within the novel’s own laws. Unlike John, I didn’t find her passive. I thought she showed great resolve in the way she stands up to her landlady and fellow lodgers, to the Priest, to Tony, and, in the third part, to her mother and to Joe. In the end, despite the woman in the shop forcing Eilis’s hand slightly, I did think Eilis was taking more control of her future.

    I suppose I’m not quite sure why the novel was written, or what it adds to our understanding of immigration and the changes brought on by that journey, but it’s a wonderful read nevertheless.

  32. I suppose I’m not quite sure why the novel was written

    It’s a good question Sam. I read an interview with Tóibín recently where he talked of remembering a story his mother or grandmother had told him, about a Wexford girl whose life loosely followed Eilis’s – and he said how this story came back to him when he was looking around for the idea for a new novel. Perhaps as a reader I am naive, but I always thought serious writers like Tóibín wrote because the story or idea or subject insisted itself upon them – not that they went out shopping for it with an empty head. In fact I think for me that lack of urgency or necessity reflected in the book (although I didn’t hear about it until after I’d read the book).

  33. Brooklyn has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I think it’s a shoo-in for the shortlist, and could even be a compromise winner (because, even if nobody on the panel really loves it – though one or two might – I don’t think any of them will absolutely hate it). I’d also add as a rider, what I said on Trevor Berrett’s blog today:

    I read Brooklyn about eight months ago so it’s pretty well faded in my memory and there’s a risk that what I wrote in my review will eventually constitute my only thoughts on it. However I do remember liking it very much until at least halfway through – particularly Tóibín’s ability to tell so much and move the story on so efficiently in each individual page. It was only when I realised that the book was going to remain in a minor key that I began to feel disappointment with it. I agree that anyone reading it without prior knowledge of Tóibín, and The Master in particular, will rate it very highly.

  34. Just cast my eye back over the earlier comments and see that you fingered The Quickening Maze for the Booker longlist, John. Well spotted. It’s yet to be published in South Africa, but I’ve read up on it, and the cover is fantastic (and, yes, I’m afraid, the cover does matter.) Having only read Brooklyn and The Children’s Book (another great cover), I’ve a way to go before predicting a winner, but am glad to see good old JM is in there again, even though he’s disowned us.

  35. Hey, so I did! I’m amazed. I knew I’d thought the Foulds might get onto the list, but I didn’t realise I’d said it out loud, as it were.

    I won’t be reading the longlist in its entirety this year, though I do intend to read, from my own interest in them, the Coetzee, Trevor, Mawer and possibly Mantel.

    1. Well, with the fear of repeating myself seeping through my fingers as I type this, it’s a pretty dull list. I knew Nock-tey would make a hash of it. I love Toibin, Trevor and your comments on the Foulds book render that an interesting proposition but, reading the list, as I did for the first time t’other day, was like walking into a sandwich shop and seeing a long list of ‘Ham Salad’ running right across the board, with the odd Coronation Chicken and Tuna Mayo thrown in. Uninspiring. Terrible metaphor but thudding tedium was the order of the day. I see with William Hill Worthy Hacke is 3/1 with Sameagain, Linen Length 4/1 with Shoehorned Prescience, Established Navelgazer 5/1 with Trouble At Elevenses and Turgid Stylist an outside chance at tens with Memoirs Of An Onanist. It really is about time the whole thing was totally revamped. And opened up to the whole wide world. Imagine! Pynchon on the Booker! Or is it just me TM?

      1. I have it here, though I’m not going to read it yet as I don’t want to put a review up before publication. It’s a sequel to Boyhood and Youth, neither of which I’ve read.

      2. He’s top-drawer. I wouldn’t begrudge him a hat-trick, despite what I’ve just said…Elizabeth Costello was drastically overlooked. Sarah Hall, back on the list, wrote The Electric Michelangelo (correct title?) which also got in amongst the final six, was an elaborate mess of a book. Totally disastrous.

      3. From Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s newie.

        ‘Doc took the freewway out. The eastbound lanes teemed with VW buses in jittering paisleys, primer-coated street hemis, woodies of authentic Dearborn pine, TV-star-piloted Porsches, Cadillacs carrying dentists to extramarital trysts, windowless vans with lurid teen dramas in progress inside, pickups with mattresses full of country cousins from the San Joaquin, all wheeling along together down into these great horizonless fields of housing, under the power transmission lines, everybody’s radios lasing on the same couple of AM stations, under a sky like watered milk, and the white bombardment of a sun smogged into only a smear of probability, out in whose light you began to wonder if anything you’d call psychedelic could ever happen, or if–bummer!–all this time it had really been going on up north.’

        That’s the kind of writing I could get behind come awards season.

  36. The word on How to Paint a Dead Man is that it fails to be more than the sum of its parts, in that there’s not enough connection between the stories. Perhaps a little like Cloud Atlas. However I haven’t read it so that’s all hearsay…

  37. Her previous shortlisted effort was all o’er the shop. You could see she had a talent but it was totally diffuse and unfocused, as though it was badly translated or something.

  38. BROOKYN was a great disappointment for me.
    I really liked his earlier books, BROOKLYN seemed not to have complexity of plot or character that I have come to expect from thiis fine writer.

  39. I think I liked it more than you did Margaret, though broadly I agree that it was a disappointment next to something like The Master (which I have relentlessly praised so much in the last five years that I wonder if it too might turn out to be a disappointment on rereading). I am interested though in the praise others have offered for it, and in particular what KevinfromCanada said in defence of it on his blog. (He also refers to Liam McIlvanney’s review in the LRB, which is visible here to subscribers.)

  40. Thanks for linking to my review, John — it is producing results for me. And I certainly acknowledge that your review helped focus my thoughts (as your reviews so often do) when I read the book.

    I’m expecting Brooklyn to make the shortlist and very much looking forward to rereading it (I read the last part a second time before I did my review, but not all of the book). A combination of your own reviews on books about the Troubles (I might not want to read the books but I certainly learn from reading about them) and McIlvanney’s excellent analysis of Brooklyn have left me with the distinct impression that there is more to the book than I thought on first read.

    Alas, at page 300, your presumptive thoughts about Wolf Hall are also proving to be only too perceptive, and I know you haven’t even read it. It is long, it is incredibly detailed, it is so Hilary Mantel and it desperately needs to pick up pace. When any book reminds me of reading The Northern Clemency, I know I am in deep trouble.

    1. Oh dear Kevin, that does sound ominous. I do now have Wolf Hall but will probably only read it if it is shortlisted (which I think is likely).

      For some reason your comment is not showing up in my Recent Comments sidebar (I only noticed it through the WordPress Dashboard). I wonder if my replying to it will fix that.

      (EDIT: It did.)

    2. Kevin, DON’T GIVE UP! You might find as I did that I was suddenly part of the furniture and the book then works at a completely different level, then you reflect back on those 300 pages anew…honest:-)

    3. Plus, the other benefit is that with Wolf Hall you are roughly halfway through by page 300. That could not fairly have been said of The Northern Clemency.

      1. WordPress and I were having some difficulties earlier today but that seems to have been sorted out.

        Wolf Hall has been sent to the cradle for a rest at page 327 and the reader is attempting to undergo an attitude improvement. I may be the first reader in the history of William Trevor’s work to ever pick up one of his books looking for some cheery action. And 40 pages into it, he is actually delivering. Reading is such a strange world.

  41. Brooklyn is a very readable and enjoyable book but I do not think it will win any major award, it is too straightforward.

  42. “Brooklyn” gripped me from the first to the last word. Toibin knows how to turn a story on an invisible needle, and to make a reader care deeply about each character. The heart behind the story is the heart, I suspect, of Toibin himself, and its insight, intelligence and sympathy imbue the story with the kind of literary compassion that creates something you might call eternal.

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