I am enjoying being on holidays from work for the next week, and hosting our guests with all the hospitality we can muster. They are staying in a nearby town in holiday bungalows. We had a great barbecue yesterday with hubby cooking for 22 people and us all ducking and diving between the thundershowers. After the family arrived we had lunch on the patio where I had a chance to showcase my domestic goddess skills. We had freshly baked buttered scones with strawberry jam and whipped cream, which went down a treat, hot apple tart and cream, and a variety of fairy cakes, from coconut to hundreds and thousands on icing to cherry buns. Today when they called in we had simpler fare - plain madeira and cherry madeira cakes with lashings of tea (which the Dutch drink black) and real coffee (as opposed to instant). I hope I can sustain the variety for the week, in between baking the birthday cake and deciding on a decorative theme.
But I digress. First and foremost this post is supposed to be about Brooklyn - a wonderfully evocative yet bleak book that I read some months ago. I'd read the reviews back when the book came out and they were mixed - I remembered reading that it went down a treat in Ireland and America but it failed to make much impact in the UK. I think this is because the theme of emigration has a particularly Irish emotional resonance, and I think that this nuance is absent in the UK, where migration tended tobe either outward to the colonies, and inward migration was inherently self-serving. This is best portrayed with the West Indian immigrants of the Windrush who were brought in to serve the Empire in its dying days. I think Andrea Levy wrote brilliantly about that era in Small Island, and Colm Tóibín writes equally evocatively about the same era but in the Irish-American context.
Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey, who somewhat reluctantly emigrates from Wexford for Brooklyn in the 1960s, leaving her older sister Rose and mother behind. She comes across as extremely passive and lets things happen to her, imposed by those stronger than herself, or so it seems on first glance. Her position as a shop assistant, and her boarding with the ghastly Mrs. Kehoe is secured through contact with a local priest home on holidays from New York, who promises to take care of Eilis. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable when I read that, as from today's perspective the prospect of being beholden or under a compliment to the priest could have undertones of the abuse of power. Thankfully my fears were unfounded but the relationship with the priest seemed almost unreal and you wondered why he would go to such ends to take care of her. Perhaps it's the times we are in that we can't attribute a good deed to a member of the clergy without suspecting an ulterior motive. Maybe he was just a decent man.
Eilis's departure from home was sad and the sea crossing to New York was graphically written and spared nothing for readers of a delicate disposition in its description of its awfulness for steerage class passengers. Rose dies unexpectedly and Eilis returns to Wexford for the funeral. A dilemma develops as her brothers go to England to look for work, and she has fallen in love in New York with Tony from an Italian family with ambitions to develop a building empire - echoes of Charming Billy by Alice McDermott here - does she abandon her widowed mother to return to her Tony - is she really in love or was it an illusion? It's almost because it seems like the right thing to do at the time, to escape from the loneliness she felt so far from home in a society where she wasn't fully accepted by her peers in the boarding house or at work.
She seems to drift through life and comes across as a suppressed woman who daren't let emotions surface or they could become uncontrollable. All the women in the book were strong women who had to be in control and despite Eilis's apparent passivity it was an armour against revealing her true emotions and desires. I thought the book was written with sparse narrative but this fitted the theme of leaving a lot unsaid - as was fitting to the era when everything was concealed and true feelings were subsumed in convention dictated by church and state - two things that in Ireland were interchangeable. This was the era where the State bowed - literally - to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and sought his approval for any and every government proposal that might impact on the privacy of the family home. The doomed Mother and Child Bill of Noel Browne encapsulated that insularity and fear of progress, and seems incredible from today's perspective.
I wrote a review of Brooklyn for Rosita Boland's inaugural Irish Times Book Club, and a snippet of it was in the Saturday Weekend supplement - much to my egotistical delight as it isn't every day I get to see my name in print in such a hallowed place - and this is what I wrote in the online review:
"It’s a great idea to have a bookclub online like this - I am in a bookclub locally which is great - we did Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and loved it unanimously, but as we have a rule not to repeat authors (as it is so tempting to repeat favourites) Brooklyn won’t get read by our club. I just finished our local library copy. I loved the flow of the language, languid and very evocative of what I imagine life in Wexford must have been like in the 50s or 60s (I was a child in the 60s so I can vaguely relate to it) but I haven’t ever been to Brooklyn so can’t relate there.
I felt he drew a vivid picture of the life of the Irish emigrant there and the claustrophobia that prevailed in Eilís’s life at the boarding house and in her job. I don’t know if the character of Eilís was really credible and she irritated me a lot with her passivity. Her relationship with Tony seemed so doomed to failure in the long term - I would love to revisit them a decade or two down the line. Shades of Charming Billy in the beach scenes, a book we read in our book club which seriously divided opinion - does the emigrant fare better in an Irish ghetto or by integrating?
I read all of Tóibín’s books except The Master and loved them; this one was a bit too stereotypical. Glad I’m not the only one here thinking Rose and Miss Fortini might have been closet Lesbians. Won’t say more as there are enough Spoiler Alerts already in the above comments!
I look forward to the book club progression and best of luck with it - thanks Rosita for starting it up."That's about it - you get opinions from right now and a few months ago, and I think they reflect my feelings about Brooklyn accurately enough. It's a dynamic process, responding to and reviewing a book, as every day can bring a different reaction, depending on the mood and a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. That's why I try to write reviews from the heart in a stream of consciousness fashion instead of systematically, with quotes and the book beside me, and as my kids say, WYSIWYG*- a snapshot of what the book evokes in me at this moment. I hope it encourages you to read Brooklyn, as it is one that stays with you for a long time, and evokes a place I've never been to as clearly in mind pictures as if I had lived there beside Eilis. Surely an accomplishment for any author, particularly one as skillful as Colm Tóibín.
*What You See Is What You Get
PS: Over at Lily's Blog you will see links to all the other members of the Bloggers' Book Club, as she is the moderator - and I hope you will get to read all their reviews too. It's not nice to write into a void - so comments and feedback will be very welcome!
The Photos below the Brooklyn cover are to give a flavour of our Dutch weekend -
- Me in my Dutch domestic goddess kit
- Hubby Jan tasteful in the Dutch colours and me - BBQ time
- Lunch on the patio - with lots of home baking
- BBQ between the showers