This novel won the 2009 Costa Book Award, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and was shortlisted for the Dublin Literary Award. A film version is currently receiving rave reviews and nominations for awards.
Eilis Lacey is a young woman living in Enniscorthy in the early 1950s. She is encouraged to immigrate to Brooklyn since there are few opportunities for her in southeast Ireland. Just as she is adjusting to life in New York, she is summoned home and is then faced with a decision about where to make her home.
In many ways, the book is a character study of Eilis. She has several dominant traits; she is unsophisticated, incurious, and wants to please. She is passive, allowing others to make decisions for her. She and her sister Rose are foil characters: Rose is lively and decisive and she takes an interest in the world around her whereas Eilis, though diligent, accepts a rather dull life, happy to be more of an observer than a participant in life. Eilis reminds me of the protagonist in the short story “Eveline” in James Joyce’s The Dubliners: a passive young woman living in a stifling environment who chooses duty above her personal desires.
It is Rose who arranges for Eilis to go to the United States; that is not something she would have chosen for herself. Eilis, in fact, would have been happy with a conventional life: “Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone,, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared . . . “
Once in Brooklyn, Eilis remains docile and lets others make major decisions for her. Father Flood arranges her job and evening courses, and her landlady changes her room in the house without Eilis raising an objection. Her relationship with Tony is directed by him; she just goes along with his wishes. In virtually all instances, she takes the path of least resistance. When she returns to Ireland, Eilis allows her mother to dictate how she spends her time. Her behaviour with her friends there might seem perverse but, once again, she just goes along with plans made by others. She has reservations about those plans but allows herself to be lead in directions she would not have chosen for herself.
Some people have suggested that Eilis becomes decisive at the end, taking her own destiny into her hands, but I would argue that, again, the decision is made for her by the decisive actions of someone else, actions which leave her little option. She remains totally consistent in behaviour, choosing duty above her feelings, just as she chooses to emigrate from Ireland because she feels it is her duty and returns because “her duty lay in being at home with her mother.”
The inability or unwillingness to express one’s feelings is a major theme. Eilis, Rose, and their mother all have difficulty communicating: “they could do everything except say out loud what it was they were thinking.” Though she does not want to leave Ireland, Eilis never mentions her misgivings: “She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America, and leaving home for the first time. She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt. . .” Eilis’s letters home are full of omissions and Rose certainly keeps a big secret from her entire family. Eilis meets with her brother Angus before she departs for Brooklyn, and he too refuses to discuss his feelings of homesickness. When Eilis returns to visit, her mother asks her not “one question about her time in America, or even her trip home.”
Tóibín’s style is understated. The tone is restrained and the diction is simple, but complex emotions and complicated interactions are depicted. My one reservation about the book is its portrayal of the immigrant experience. Eilis seems to have few hardships; other than experiencing seasickness (a wonderful metaphor for the upheaval of her life) and homesickness, she adapts surprisingly easily. She quickly earns sufficient money to support herself and even treat herself. And should she have any problems, Father Flood, her landlady, and her employers are very understanding and supportive.
This author seldom disappoints. In his books, he excels at portraying the emotional lives of ordinary women, and this novel is no exception.