A beautiful story, a careful, slow build of character. Impeccable writing - spare, intense, precise. Deceptively simple at the sentence level; yet so perfectly matched to the character Toibin is creating and the story he is telling. This writing is stunning in its simplicity and its power.
Eilis is a wonderful protagonist, whose inner conflicts are shown through her experiences. At the same time, Toibin takes us into her head and lets us see how she works through major decision points. And it's the many choices that Eilis makes that propel this plot forward. It's the people she encounters along the way - how they help or hinder her - and what that reveals about the journey (physical, emotional) she is experiencing.
Toibin shows us Eilis's world as an individual story - but a representative one, too. It's the world of an Irish emigrant to Brooklyn in the 50s - within two contexts: the one she is leaving, and the one she is entering.
We are rooting for her all the way. We expect - at least, I expected - trauma at every turn of the page. Grand drama, lots of drinking, grinding poverty and the gruelling process of escape from it. So, way to set my expectations - stereotypes - on their head, Mr. Toibin.
No annoying exposition - just scene after brilliantly-constructed scene that reveal character (her own and others) and themes.
Gentle, kind, humane. Even the characters with petty jealousies and meanness, narrowness of views and outright racism - are presented with compassion. Lovely parallels (Mrs. Kelly and Ms. Fortini - two shopkeepers: one mean, narrow and spiteful; and the other progressive, compassionate albeit not effusive, professional - the old and new worlds. They don't collide - they just stand as parallels. One being left behind, and one forging ahead, tottering toward the future on newborn-foal legs, and with the same courage). We do not blame Mrs. Kelly - we recognize that she is from a time and that time is being left behind. Progress, evolution is occurring - embodied in Eilis' journey and metaphorically, through the emigrant experience in general.
I especially loved the way the immigrant/emigrant experience was presented in the duality of personality that Eilis came to feel, which made her choice - at the end - all the more wrenching.
The scene of the two black women buying stockings (colour: Red Fox) where Eilis works - and where she has been hand-picked to serve this new `target market` - is masterful. The details -- Red Fox stockings, set aside on a separate table in a separate part of the store ("When the new colours of Coffee and Sepia came it was her job to point out to the customers that these were lighter colours but most of them ignored her. By the end of each of these days she felt exhausted and found her lectures in the evening almost relaxing, relieved that there was something to take her mind off the fierce tension in the store, which lay heaviest around her counter."
p. 117) -- so subtle, yet with such massive impact.
You feel this writing, more than read it. The cast-down eyes, the quietness that falls upon the bustling store as the shoppers enter, the careful acceptance of their money and provision of their change. There are all kinds of these moments of built-up tension, not actually released, conveyed and capped off, in this scene, by Eilis's own neutral observation and question ("She wished she had not been singled out to stand at this counter and wondered if, in time, she would be moved to another part of the store."
). If for no other reason, read this book for this scene.
A great priest.
A great love story - two, in fact.
More Toibin is going on my list IMMEDIATELY. Thank you to David Giltinan, whose review
prompted me to put this on my list in the first place; and Trevor`s
, which reminded me it was there and got me to finally buy it.