The first book of my summer reads was chosen mainly because I had actually seen this movie first and liked. The book was first published in 2009 by the celebrated Irish author Colm Tóibín. I got finished in three days and I wish I had taken longer to savour it, second readings never having the same thrill.
Tóibín captures the idiosyncratic language of rural Ireland, through the dialogue of the characters, that reminded me of listening to my own older relations discussing the humdrum events of a small town. The Hibernian English and the poetically awkward phrasing kept the sense of provincial Irishness about this story set in 1950s Brooklyn present.
The story begins with Eilis and her depleted family in Enniscorthy, County Wexford facing the challenges of the “wasted years” when Ireland struggled in vain against emigration and unemployment while it desperately tried to find its role in the post war era as an independent state. In a situation similar to many young people of Ireland over the last few years, Eilis’s sister Rose suggests and organises for Eilis to go to Brooklyn, New York to find a better life than that available at home.
The story follows her voyage across the Atlantic and her settlement into the Irish community in Brooklyn, still heavily tied to the Catholic conservatism and community connections that emerged in the group of immigrants. <del>Ireland has only ever really had three degrees of separation.</del> She suffers from home sickness and longs to go home to Enniscorthy, and so the parish priest along with her boss and landlady encourage her to keep busy with various pursuits.
At a local parish dance (the exact kind of dance I think my Nana believed I was going to every time she saw me heading out on a Saturday – it wasn’t the same, she never really grasped that) she meets a boy called Tony, the son of Italian immigrants. The story follows their budding romance which is abruptly interrupted by a death which calls Eilis home.
On her return to Ireland, Eilis notices many differences in how she is perceived by the people of Enniscorthy and she realises that her original reason for leaving Ireland, the lack of opportunities financially and romantically no longer exist. She questions her decisions and which future she really wants, a life in Brooklyn with Tony or a life as the wife of a respectable gentleman in Enniscorthy, close to her mother and working as a book keeper.
The characters are brilliantly written, calling up images of characters familiar to anyone who has lived in a small town in Ireland.
Eilis is likeable and sympathetic but is revealed to be more perturbed as the book goes on. She is flighty and inconsistent; traits I usually find irritating in main characters. However, she fits into the image of a young woman from 1950s Ireland I have built up in my mind growing up with vastly different expectations and ideas about the world than I can truly relate to, due to parochial and conservative ideas that permeated rural Ireland at that time.
Her mother and sister on the surface have a close relationship, but we become aware through the story that Rose is manoeuvring to prevent Eilis from having that stereotypical image of the youngest child in an Irish house hold, to whom the responsibility of caring for an elderly, widowed mother falls to.
Tóibín’s writing is subtle, funny and focuses on the emotional and personal weight of scenes rather than the action, which builds up the characters in a beautifully realistic way.