This story begins in the small town of Enniscorthy Ireland. It is 1950 and nineteen year old Eilis Lacey lives quietly with her widowed mother and her beautiful, spirited sister, Rose. Eilis is poised on the threshold of adulthood. She is taking a bookkeeping course and remains close to the girl friends from her school days. She is not romantically attached to anyone as yet but she is interested and attentively observing the mating rituals at the local dances. Although unemployment is prevalent and – touches just about every family in post war Ireland, Eilis is hoping to find her place within the community close to her childhood home. She has no thought of moving away to England, as have her three older brothers. Some fifteen hundred words into the story, the author, Colm Tóibín, has Eilis transported from her safe comfortable home to the other side of the Atlantic when Rose convinces both her and her mother that America is the best place for Eilis to find employment. Eilis has no enthusiasm for embarking on such an adventure but she is young and allows others to decide her future. She is put on an ocean liner bound for America and endures a rough and stormy crossing. A trusted Catholic priest meets Eilis at the dock in New York City and sees that she is settled in Brooklyn in a boarding house for single ladies; a type of establishment that is unknown in the twenty first century. It is a place where the landlady rules like a minor despot setting the hour for meals dictating who should be -allowed to sit in the parlour and what time everyone had to be home in the evening.
The homesickness Eilis endures is palpable. The author tells a simple story of a young girl trying her best to cope when everything comforting and familiar has been taken away. She is employed as a sales clerk in a large department store in Brooklyn and immerses herself in her work as a way of diverting her thoughts away from her mother, her sister and home. Colm Tóibín does a masterful job of putting into words Eilis’s feelings as she matures and gradually finds her place in her new environment. The reader has the sense that the author truly likes this young character, the product of his imagination and so we, the readesr read quickly and turn the pages anxious to know how Eilis will get on and if she will find some kind of happiness or at least some respite from the sadness that consumes her.
A dramatic change is introduced when a young man falls in love with Eilis and she is slowly and lovingly drawn into his family sphere. She is overwhelmed at first but continues to pursue her own interests by attending night school in the hope of training for a job in the business office of the department store where she works.
A year and a half later a family tragedy draws her back to Ireland. At home, she cannot help comparing the vitality and rapid pace of life in Brooklyn to the sleepy and somewhat shabby town of Enniscorthy. She also becomes aware that the town’s people have changed in the way they regard her. Before she left she was something of an invisible person; just another middle class teenager finding her way through the education system without much prospect for a prosperous future. Upon her return she finds she is regarded as being both interesting and glamorous. This is due in part to her fashionable clothes and make-up, all of which she had aquired as part of the uniform of a sales clerk in a ladies apparel department. However, it is her newly acquired self-confidence that earns the admiration of her peers and acquaintances and evokes an appreciation of all her good qualities that had not been noticeable before her return. Her feelings become conflicted when she discovers opportunities opening up that would allow her to stay in the much-loved place of her birth.
Aside from following with rapt interest the fortunes of Eilis Lacey I was caught up completely in the atmosphere of New York in the 1950’s. If this novel is not the product of the author’s personal experience or some intense research it is a masterful feat of the imagination. He lays out the framework of a vibrant city with paved streets, modern lighting, taxis and the subway. There is the iconic New York diner and ethnically diverse foods and a universal passion for baseball. The contrast with modern New York is demonstrated in how open the U.S. was to immigration. Eilis had her papers and her and immigration status within a few weeks of deciding to move to America which would be unheard of today. The city is full of first and second-generation immigrants who were for the most part white Europeans and the circles Eilis moved in when she first arrived were full of people connected to Ireland. Even her landlady turned out to be related to people who lived in Enniscorthy. New York and Brooklyn in particular was a far more parochial place. It was a place where a landlady could call up the police department and ask the foot patrol to watch out for suspicious looking loiterers in her neighbourhood. I wonder how the Brooklyn Police Department would handle such a request today. Interestingly it is while Eilis is settling into her work at the department store that the management decides to cater to the tastes of the ladies of the black population of New York by offering certain brand name clothing. She is asked to help with serving the black customers at the counter where this clothing is sold, which she does and is puzzled why her colleagues have no enthusiasm for this expansion of the enterprise. She seems unaware of the existence of racial discrimination perhaps because there were no such issues back home in Ireland where religious prejudice was traditionally the source of riot and mayhem.
The author has also embellished the story with some interesting details about communication and travel in the fifties. I was thinking as I read from chapter to chapter that if one of my children decided to move to the other side of the world I would have the comfort of telephone, e-mail and Skype to ease the anxiety of separation. If necessary I could buy a plane ticket on line and be with them in a matter of hours. Eilis did not have access to a telephone, she communicated by mail, which crossed the Atlantic by boat and took more than a week to reach its destination. If there was need for an urgent communication one could use telegraph, air mail (which was too expensive for everyday and had to be written on special air mail paper) or one could make arrangements with someone who did have a phone to place a transatlantic call. However, in Ellis’s situation as her mother did not have a telephone herself the effort to place such a call took an amount of planning in proportion to a military maneuver. Even when she wished to purchase a ticket to go back home, Eilis had to write the ocean liner company to request a reservation and wait a week or more for a reply. This was a different time and a different world deftly described I thought by the author.
This is one of those novels I would describe as perfectly wrought in the sureness and readability of the writing; in the art of selecting just the right details and in the characters that earned my heartfelt interest. As I read each sentence I could hear the music in the Irish accent of the Dubliner. I am inspired to read more of Colm Toibin’s novels and will do so (if I live long enough to get through the unread books still waiting for my attention).