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Continued: 'Brooklyn' details inner life

  • Article by: JOHN FREEMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 22, 2009 - 4:40 PM

Long before Bernard Malamud made it mythological, decades before Paul Auster's labyrinth took root upon its leafy blocks, Brooklyn was home to thousands upon thousands of Irish immigrants. Seventy thousand, to be exact, many of whom came to America for work and a better life.

By 1950, however, the number of Irish-born residents in Brooklyn had dropped below 30,000. They were moving to the Bronx and Queens, and Brooklyn was becoming the multiracial city it is today.

In his latest novel, "Brooklyn," Colm Toibín throws Eilis Lacey, the young heroine, into this shifting mix of New Yorkers and emerges with an acutely modulated portrait of a woman caught between two worlds.

The world Eilis hails from will be familiar to readers of Toibín's fiction. Enniscorthy after World War II is a grim place of shrinking opportunities and familiar rituals.

There's the church dance, and the shop where Eilis works most days for so little money that it amounts to charity work -- although it is the cheap, mean-spirited owner who thinks she is the one bestowing a gift.

Just after World War II, times are tight. Eilis' mother must explain where she gets such things as bread crumbs. A young man with a car is a prince. Everyone notices if you dance two songs with another fellow.

It is not hard to see why Eilis would leave Enniscorthy. Indeed, her two brothers left for work in England long before. But it is less common for a woman to undertake such a massive voyage. Quietly, with unfussy charm, "Brooklyn" chronicles how her journey away from this place changes her.

Toibín's great strength as a writer has always been the mutability of his prose. In "The Master," he adopted the long, winding sentences of his hero, Henry James. "The Story of the Night" seethes with the humid atmosphere of Argentina in the 1980s, perched on the precipice of change.

In "Brooklyn," Toibín strips his prose down to the woolen essentials. Here is the perspective of a woman who has known very little, a woman for whom heating at night and a second evening coat are great luxuries.

Out of small details Toibín creates an enormous interior life of Eilis. The tea and toast taste funny, and the great slicked-back hairdos of the men at the dance hall are a revelation. The store where she works begins to sell hosiery for black women. It is not their skin, however, but their frightened demeanor that shocks Eilis.

Toibín never overplays the wonder of Eilis' reaction to so much newness being pelted at her; consequently, these familiar parts of an immigrant's journey become fresh again.

Like its heroine, this is a modest, slightly mournful novel. It's a book that lulls you into quietude and a sense of security that -- it does not give anything away to say -- is ultimately shattered. Only then does Eilis learn what it truly means to leave home: It means you have nothing left to go back to.

John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.

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  • Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

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  • BROOKLYN

    By: Colm Toibín.

    Publisher: Scribner, 256 pages, $25.

    Review: Toibín strips his prose down to the essentials in this quiet, detailed story of a young woman caught between two worlds.

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