When did the immigrant experience in the United States become the preferred framework for epic narratives? I imagine the turning point came in the 1970s with The Godfather and Roots. Certainly the story line is just as popular today, especially in the literary arena — check out, for example, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (reportedly on Barack Obama’s reading list) as well as Pulitzer Prize winning novels such as Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
Now Colm Tóibín shows that even an Irish novelist can find inspiration in the American melting pot. Perhaps we should not be surprised. Tóibín himself has lived outside his native country and traveled extensively. His first novel, The South (1990) clearly drew on his own experiences residing in Barcelona, and his best known work, The Master (2004), is a fictionalized character study of Henry James, the novelist most closely associated with the nuances of Americans in Euorpe and Europeans in America — although the characters in James’s books aren’t the kind who showed up at Ellis Island knowing hardly a word of English.
Brooklyn, set in the period following the end of World War II, opens more than three thousand miles away from its title location. Eilis Lacey lives with her older sister and mother in a small Irish city, where jobs are scarce and opportunities to break out of the rigid hierarchies of local society almost non-existent. A visiting priest from Brooklyn offers to find work and lodging for Eilis in America — and it only gradually dawns on the girl that her older sister Rose has hatched this plan behind her back.
Eilis is uneasy at the thought of moving away from home and embarking upon an unknown life far away, but feels compelled to hide her anxieties, if only to avoid upsetting the family members she leaves behind. While other authors have focused on the promise of the New World in their accounts of immigrants, Tóibín is more attuned to the world abandoned. Even before Lacey gets on the boat to America we can sense that this will be no conventional rags-to-riches tale.
Tóibín presents his story with compassion and honesty, yet never falls into sentimentality, which could easily happen given the focus here on romance, family, loss and loneliness. There is nothing flamboyant about this novel, and in an endearing sort of way, that is one of its great virtues. As I mentioned above, the immigrant experience in America has become a subject of epic proportions and one of the results is that storytellers tend to overreach in how these accounts are presented nowadays. Uncle Gustav may have come to the US to be a carpenter, Grandpa Moe may have arrived to pursue a career as an accountant, but they are transformed into Achilles with an accent and Odysseus with a green card when their stories are now told. But not in Brooklyn, where the novel unfolds on the smallest of scales and where the nuances and details give life to each page.
Lacey’s assimilation in New York life sets the stage for the central drama of Tóibín’s book — which oddly enough takes place back in Ireland. The history books rarely look at the immigrants who refused to melt in the melting pot, who went back to their native countries to resume their old lives, but these stories are often even more poignant than the sunny accounts of assimilation and upward mobility by successful new arrivals. Will our heroine be one of these American dropouts?
A family tragedy forces Lacey to return home for what she thinks will be a short visit. Yet the longer she stays in Ireland, the more she forgets the life she has been building for herself in the United States. She delays her return trip, and defers making any final choice between staying and going. A decision is forced upon her, and she realizes — perhaps the most painful truth that those who have moved long distances in their life learn from these relocations — that no matter what choice she makes, it will come at a heavy price. Moreover it is always a price that can never be estimated, even years later, since what might have resulted from taking another path inevitably remains a mystery.
In truth, this is the plight of anyone who moves from one country to another. But Tóibín has captured this sense of the tragedy of choice, the loss that accompanies any decisive moment in our lives, better than any author I have read. No, this is not another epic on the immigrant experience, no “Once Upon a Time in America” type of tale. Brooklyn is rather the story behind those larger-than-life accounts, and a reminder that new worlds are constructed only by those brave enough to walk away from the old ones.