Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When did the immigrant experience in the United States assume its position as
the preferred framing story for epic American narratives? I imagine that the
turning point came in the 1970s, with
The Godfather and Roots.  Certainly the
story line is just as popular today, especially in
the literary arena—check out, for example,
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (reportedly on
Barack Obama’s reading list) as well as Pulitzer
Prize winning novels such as Junot Diaz’s
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Michael
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier &

Now Colm Tóibín shows that even an Irish
novelist can find inspiration in the American
melting pot. Perhaps we should not be surprised.
Tóibín himself has lived outside his native country
and traveled extensively. His first novel,
(1990) clearly drew on his own experiences
residing in Barcelona, and his best known work,
The Master (2004), is a fictionalized character
study of Henry James, the novelist most closely
associated with the nuances of Americans in Euorpe and Europeans in America—
although the characters in James’s books aren’t the kind who showed up at Ellis
Island knowing hardly a word of English.

Brooklyn, set in the period following the end of World War II, opens more than
three thousand miles away from its title location. Eilis Lacey lives with her older
sister and mother in a small Irish city, where jobs are scarce and opportunities
to break out of the rigid hierarchies of local society almost non-existent. A
visiting priest from Brooklyn offers to find work and lodging for Eilis in America—
and it only gradually dawns on the girl that her older sister Rose has hatched
this plan behind her back.

Eilis is uneasy at the thought of moving away from home and embarking upon
an unknown life far away, but feels compelled to hide her anxieties, if only to
avoid upsetting the family members she leaves behind. While other authors
have focused on the promise of the New World in their accounts of immigrants,
Tóibín is more attuned to the world abandoned. Even before Lacey gets on the
boat to America we can sense that this will be no conventional rags-to-riches

Tóibín presents his story with compassion and honesty, yet never falls into
sentimentality—which could easily happen given the focus here on romance,
family, loss and loneliness. There is nothing flamboyant about this novel, and in
an endearing sort of way, that is one of its great virtues. As I mentioned above,
the immigrant experience in America has become a subject of epic proportions—
and one of the results is that storytellers tend to overreach in how these
accounts are presented nowadays. Uncle Gustav may have come to the US to
be a carpenter, Grandpa Moe may have arrived to pursue a career as an
accountant, but they are transformed into Achilles with an accent and Odysseus
with a green card when their stories are now told. But not in
Brooklyn, where
the novel unfolds on the smallest of scales and where the nuances and details
give life to each page.

Lacey’s assimilation in New York life sets the stage for the central drama of
Tóibín’s book—which oddly enough takes place back in Ireland. The history
books rarely look at the immigrants who refused to melt in the melting pot, who
went back to their native countries to resume their old lives, but these stories
are often even more poignant than the sunny accounts of assimilation and
upward mobility by successful new arrivals. Will our heroine be one of these
American dropouts?

A family tragedy forces Lacey to return home for what she thinks will be a short
visit. Yet the longer she stays in Ireland, the more she forgets the life she has
been building for herself in the United States. She delays her return trip, and
defers making any final choice between staying and going. A decision is forced
upon her, and she realizes—perhaps the most painful truth that those who
have moved long distances in their life learn from these relocations—that no
matter what choice she makes, it will come at a heavy price. Moreover it is
always a price that can never be estimated, even years later, since what might
have resulted from taking another path inevitably remains a mystery.

In truth, this is the plight of anyone who moves from one country to another.
But Tóibín has captured this sense of the tragedy of choice, the loss that
accompanies any decisive moment in our lives, better than any author I have
read. No, this is not another epic on the immigrant experience, no “Once Upon a
Time in America . . .” type of tale.
Brooklyn is rather the story behind those
larger-than-life accounts, and a reminder that new worlds are constructed only
by those brave enough to walk away from the old ones.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.

by Colm Tóibín
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