After watching the film adaptation on Netflix, I felt compelled to read Eilis’ story in its original form, hoping for even more plot and character that may have been squeezed out of the Oscar-nominated film, starring the brilliant Saoirse Ronan.
Brooklyn (2009) tells the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl, unable to find work in her hometown, and thus shipped off the to New York suburb of Brooklyn, where opportunity abounds. Leaving behind a beloved sister and mother, and heading into the unknown, Eilis experiences a culture shock and homesickness, but also finds love and education she never knew at home.
Eilis is a reserved protagonist, with the the third person narration really distancing the reader from her, so at times her judgements and decisions can seem harsh or rash, and I often found myself frowning at her choices and reasonings for them. I was left unconvinced that Toibin had captured this young girl’s voice. But the characterisation of other figures, like Tony, her Brooklyn romancer, and Jim, her Irish interest, is deeper and richer, and Eilis’ relationship to her mother, sister and brothers is realistic and warm.
Watching her detach from her old life, and embark on a new journey in America is exciting, and I enjoyed learning about the routine of her life, with a distinct sense that Toibin had done his research. I would have liked to see more about American immigration at the time, but only throwaway comments were made in regards to Irish, Italian and Jewish movements from the continent.
Whilst I appreciated the slow plotting, and minimal drama, the ending felt rushed and perhaps even anti-climatic, with the conclusion given only a few pages to wrap itself up. However, Eilis’ ultimate choice between Ireland, and the known, and America, and the new, was one I championed, and which I felt was progressive and inspiring in historical fiction.
This is one of those (extremely) rare cases where the film, in my opinion, is better than the book. Ronan was able to bring a warmth to Eilis that Toibin did not capture in his writing, and, surprisingly, the film fleshed out parts of the plot more successfully than the book did, with Eilis’ return to Ireland crammed into a few last pages. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read, and a nice break from YA for the week.