Having missed out on The Gala’s screening of Brooklyn during November, I decided to read the original novel by Colm Tóibín in the first week of the Christmas holidays. I had initially been drawn to the novel from the cinema trailer with the producer indicating the theme of home through Gabrielle Aplin’s song Home. Being a university student, the concept of ‘home’ is often a perplexing one, as we try to build a new life in a new city. On leaving home, we are often presented with the challenge of maintaining contact with those we have left behind, the people who have known us longer than anyone else we might meet at our new destinations. Tóibín explores this dilemma through the life of a young Irish girl, from Enniscorthy, County Wexford – the author’s home town. At the opening of the novel, Eilis is living with her widowed mother and sister and working in an office, giving Tóibín full rein to explore the issue of post-war opportunities for young women in Ireland.
Evidently these opportunities are scarce, and by chance Eilis is taken on by the stringent Miss Kelly as a humble shop assistant. Staying true to the time, Tóibín describes the appeal of the dance halls for young girls looking for potential husbands, where modest Eilis has so far not been successful. The future for Eilis is slowly moving towards the domesticity of her mother’s home. When eventually the arrangements for her emigration to America are put in place by her sister and a family friend, the reader is quick to see that Eilis in in deep water, starting with the terrible six day passage across the Atlantic. On leaving her brother at the port in Liverpool, Tóibín hints at her suffering to come, as he confides to Eilis that at first, on moving to England, he would have done anything to return home.
‘Take me away to someplace real’
Tóibín guides the reader through a traditional tale of homesickness. On arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis, yet to complete her training in book-keeping, slowly settles into her job into a department store. Despite her quickness in judging the characters of her lodgers, who offer little in the way of comforting companionship, Eilis realises that in her first few weeks that she has thought very little of home. It is letters from her mother and sister Rose, which shake her new life from the outside of the world she has left behind, creating confusion and despondency. Realising her distance from home, she decides quickly that nothing in Brooklyn feels part of her: ‘It was false, empty.’ In spite of this, she overcomes her homesickness by attending evening accountancy classes, and enjoying the company of doting Italian-American Tony- whom, incidentally, she meets at the dance hall. Despite her anxieties about the speed of her relationship, her new life in Brooklyn could not be going better.
‘It’s where you go to rest your bones’
It is the death of a relative, a great role model to Eilis, coupled with her mother’s persistence, that leads her to take the journey home after two years of working and studying in Brooklyn. On returning home, the distance of Ireland to her American life could not be clearer to Eilis, who becomes fearful of her return. She realises that leaving the familiarity of her Irish home feels her with dread, reflecting that to ‘go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her now.’ So home becomes safe and easy for Eilis, and her mother’s dream for her daughter’s permanent return comes closer to a reality as a result.
By the end of the novel, we have a protagonist very much caught between two worlds – which is much like the experience of being a student. Tóibín never misses a beat as he recounts the indecision of Eilis, and in the last twenty pages of the novel, the reader slowly prepares for several different endings for the character. So large is the uncertainty of the ending that it had me preparing to sympathise with either lover she leaves behind, or ready to put the book down. For me, though, the essence of her final decision is a profound act of self-development rather than simply a love for the life she has left behind, becoming a tale of rebellion rather than just a love story.
Though I became increasingly disconcerted about what Tóibín was trying to communicate with Eilis’ decision, there was however in her final choice a recognition of responsibility for the life she had created in America and the promises she had made to others. Despite my earlier instinct, and as my heart was sinking at what I foresaw as Tóibín’s ending, I was called back in the text to the earlier comments of the Ennicrothy girls, who disliked the pomposity of the rugby boys such as Jim Farrell. So by choosing America over her former home in Ireland, we see Eilis not only living through those she has lost and leaves behind, but a detachment from home, as she realises that that what she previously saw as home is not going to be her future.