VCE Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Brooklyn Yes, I admit it. I have been slack of late with my postings. And no, I wasn’t kidnapped by the Easter bunny or trapped under a pile of Easter egg wrappers. I was helping my dear mother move from the family home to a smaller place ‘in town’. She’s an ex-librarian, so needless to say we had some serious shelf-weeding to do!

Given my recent farewell to a place of childhood significance, it seems fitting that I now write a review of Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín . It is a book that so beautifully captures the complex melancholy that occurs when we leave our family home for something new. What price do we pay for opportunities? And what if those opportunities are across the other side of the world?


Brooklyn tells the story of Miss Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in 1950s Ireland who leaves her home town Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, New York, in pursuit of full-time employment. This is not something Eilis has consciously considered for herself, it is something her family (including her mother and older sister Rose) believe will benefit her. Rose is an important role model in Eilis’s life:

‘Rose, at thirty, Eilis thought, was more glamorous every year, and, while she had had several boyfriends, remained single; she often remarked that she has a much better life than many of her former school mates who were to be seen pushing prams through the streets.’ (p18)

Despite leaving her family, Eilis is not completely without a community in New York – she is established in a guest house and secure employment in a department store with the assistance of the kindly Father Flood, a catholic priest known to her family.

Somewhat predictably, Eilis experiences life as one would expect of a newly arrived immigrant. She attends work, getting used to her duties and her co-workers, she continues her studies, she navigates the hazards of boarding house life. As Eilis’s new life becomes more familiar and secure, she grows to enjoy specific experiences of Brooklyn, including a fledgling romance with Tony, an witty Italian-American who shows Eilis a deeper side to New York life.

When a family crisis calls Eilis home, she has to weigh-up her homesickness and family obligations with her new identity and vision for her future, which is squarely in Brooklyn, New York.


There is so much to say about this story that seemed, at first, so straight forward it was almost dismissed as dull.  Thankfully, as the story progresses, the complex nature of the narrative is revealed. What makes this novel so memorable is a combination of Tóibín’s spare, understated writing style and an original exploration of the female immigrant experience.

The story of Eilis could be written in a sentimental and emotional way, yet Tóibín resists this with a reserve I haven’t experienced before. His sophisticated use of language and dialogue makes characters and interactions come to life, particularly the harsh reality of the immigrant experience. Most memorable is his description of Eilis’ harrowing first night on board the ship to America, with the poor conditions in the third-class leading to some unscrupulous  behaviour. Overwhelmed by seasickness, but unable to unlock the door to the shared bathroom, Eilis is forced to vomit in her cabin and in the hallway, a truly degrading experience.

“Eilis sat up and slowly made her way down the ladder. The smell of vomit was dreadful. Georgina had taken a nail file from her handbag and was already busy working at the lock on the bathroom door. She opened it without too much difficulty. Eilis followed her into the bathroom where the passengers in the other berth had left their toilet things. “Now, we have to block their door because tonight is going to be even worse…it’s the only solution.”

Tóibín also cleverly uses dialogue to explore and expand on specific characters, and to clearly establish power in relationships. For example, when Eilis tells her employer Miss Kelly she is leaving for New York, the response is loaded with simmering hostility:

“Ill be here on Sunday,” Eilis said.

“Ah, no, we won’t be needing you at all. If you’re going, you’re best to go.” [Miss Kelly responds]

“I was hoping I could work until I left”.

“Not here you can’t. So be off with you now. We have plenty of work, more deliveries today and more stacking. And no time for talking.”

Another noticeable element of Tóibín’s style is the way Eilis refers to the characters in her world. She calls some of her friends and associates in a formal manner, i.e. Miss McAdam, Mrs Kehoe, Miss Fortini, yet others are referred to by first name (for example other lodgers such as Patty and Shelia, and her ship-mate, Georgina.) This is most likely used by the author to illustrate that the boundaries of certain relationships exist (even if the relationships are close, such as with Miss Fortini) and need to be maintained. Another key theme, or overarching idea, is the importance of relationships and how they shape our lives, whether we want them to or not. In small-town Ireland, Tóibín confirms that the impact of relationships and networks have a broad reach, with tendrils reaching all the way from Ireland to New York. Therefore, it pays to be respectful and conform to social norms.

Concluding Comments/Rating

Overall, I enjoyed Brooklyn despite taking some time to warm to the novel initially. Some slow passages two-thirds of the way through, as well as tiring descriptions of social dances in Ireland and America, did slow the story down, yet not enough to really detract from the overall momentum.

Eilis’s relationship with Tony was not a great romance, and that was disappointing. I think I was secretly yearning for more emotion and more connection. Yet the relationship between Eilis and Tony was touching in its honestly and respect, leaving the impression of something deeply endearing. 

Rating: 8/10

Key Themes:

  • 1950s Ireland and mass immigrant due to poverty and economic uncertainty
  • The role of religion and its influence on morality
  • Pre-marital sex and attitudes to sexuality in the 1950s, including same-sex attraction
  • Class and social hierarchy in the mid 1900s
  • What is morality? What is good and what is evil?

Study Links:

Book Details: ISBN 978-1-60285-530-4, my edition published in 2009 by Centre Point Large Print. This edition is dedicated to his literary agent!!

4 thoughts on “VCE Book Review: Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

  1. Great review! I found that my appreciation for this book continued to grow long after I’d finished reading it – Eilis has become one of those unforgettable literary characters. Avoiding spoilers, I thought the letter she received from her brother at the emotional peak of the book was one of the most wonderful bits of writing I’ve ever read.


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