Friday 3 February 2012

Why Didn't I Like This Book?

I do not like thee Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell.

As far as I’m concerned this traditional children's rhyme sums up the way I feel about ‘Brooklyn’, by Colm Toibin. It's what  Frances at recently referred to as ‘The Almost Liked’.  The writing is fine, the story is fine, the characters are fine – but it didn’t do anything for me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why not. It wasn’t even that I hated the book. I didn’t. I just failed to engage with it on any emotional level whatsoever.

Eilis Lacey is unable to get a job in the small Irish town where she lives, so her elder sister, Rose, arranges for her to emigrate to Brooklyn, where she works in a department store and rents a room at Mrs Kehoe’s.  The local priest finds a remedy for her homesickness b y enrolling her in evening classes for book keeping and accountancy, and slowly she gets to know her landlady, fellow lodgers and work colleagues, but she makes no close friends until she meets Tony, an Italian plumber, at a dance in the parish hall, and he falls in love with her.

Gradually she find a new life away from her mother and sister, and her memories of  Ireland begin to fade. Then Rose dies and Eilis returns to Ireland to visit her mother – but before she leaves she agrees to marry Tony, in secret. For some unknown reason she never tells her mother and friends about Tony or her marriage, and as an attraction grows between her and pub landlord Jim Farrell her time in America takes on the quality of a dream. Jim wants her to get engaged to him, Rose’s boss wants to offer her a job, her mother wants her to remain, and she leaves Tony’s letters unopened.

It seems Eilis could have everything she ever wanted if she stays in Ireland, but she is forced to make a decision and go back to Tony and America when a town busybody reveals that she is Mrs Kehoe’s cousin, and she knows all about Eilis...

I must say I found Eilis rather irritating as a central figure and never really felt I knew or understood her. She seems almost to have no will of her own: she goes to America because Rose wants her to, and because she doesn’t want to upset Rose or her mother by showing her true feelings. Similarly, she doesn’t want to upset Tony by rejecting him, so she ends up marrying him, almost by default and, presumably, had she stayed in Ireland and not returned to America she may have married Tony because everyone expected it. Personally, I don’t think she’s in love with either man – she seems to lack passion, and just takes the line of least resistance.

In addition the description of the crossing to America owed a huge debt to Dickens and his ‘American Notes’. Had so little progress been made that in the 1950s, more than a century after Dickens’ made the journey,  trunks still didn’t fit into ships’ cabins?

This novel won the 2009 Costa award, and Toibin is, apparently, regarded as the greatest living Irish writer, but I was bitterly disappointed with it. 

*I posted this for the Irish Reading Challenge 2012 at


  1. I was completely disappointed with this one when I read it last year, too. My biggest beef was one you shared - Eilis' character. She seemed to only be reacting to everyone around her, she never acted on her own. Weak and unsympathetic. Doesn't make me too excited to try another of his books!

  2. I thought I posted a comment on this - I think it disappeared!

    I didn't like this one, either - for many of the same reasons as you. Mainly because the main character simply let things happen to her - she never made her own decisions or acted with her own will. Weak and unsympathetic.