A Failed Expedition?

Brooklyn follows the life of a young woman, Eilis, as she leaves her home in rural Ireland and emigrates to America in search of a better life. The fluidity and elegance of Toibin’s prose and the fact that the book itself is only 250 pages means that little is required of the reader. However, the ease of reading Brooklyn does not detract from the novel’s shortcomings. The novel begins in Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy in Southern Ireland in the early 1950s, where Toibin himself grew up. While it is understandable that authors would want to draw upon what they know, there is a distinct lack of imagination in Toibin’s writing and plot, which extends beyond its location and era.

While noting how the novel deals with issues of identity, race, sexuality and morals, would seem to make it praiseworthy, it is in dealing with these themes that the author lets us down. The issues are superficially imposed on the surface of the story and Toibin fails to engage with them satisfactorily. It begs the question of why he even raises the issues without even beginning to delve into them; it seems as though they were tacked on in a bid to make the novel have more substance, and yet they fail to add anything at all. He has several gritty topics in his hands and set Brooklyn in a time of great unease and discrimination, and yet somehow he manages to neglect these aspects of the novel that could have made it interesting and worthy of a read. Instead we are left with an unoriginal story following the thoughts and day-to-day activities of an ill-defined heroine, whose portrayal varies from meek and unsure to confident and indulgent. The complex characterisation of Eilis is either the result of the brilliance of Toibin in creating a central character whom not only the readers cannot get to the bottom of, but who cannot get to the bottom of herself, or simply a result of a failure in character formation. It seems that the protagonist simply embodies too many contradictions – an impressively damaging feat in such a short novel.

I found myself with little patience for Eilis. When she is in Brooklyn she misses Ireland, and when in Ireland she misses Brooklyn. Her inability to make up her mind and her hypocrisy extend to her treatment of men. She spends her time warding off the advances of her boyfriend in Brooklyn only to sleep with him before they are married. Once married she goes home to have a Summer fling with an Enniscorthy local. She shows little remorse and Toibin somehow manages to place the blame of this on her husband for not having the laid-back graces of her Irish lover, rather than on the morally-questionable Eilis. Some credit is due to Toibin in that the novel ends when there is no longer any mystery left in Eilis’ life; one is not left wondering what will happen after Toibin stops writing as he has illustrated this already through the miserable acceptance with which Eilis greets her fate. She was compelled to leave Enniscorthy and later return by external forces, but ultimately, her life was of her own making and the result of her own poor decisions. It is unclear whether Toibin wants the reader to feel pity for his protagonist, and in this instance, this ambiguity renders the book a little hollow.

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