Review: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (Book & Movie)

I’ve just finished reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. It’s a book about an Irish girl named Eilis who immigrates to America in the 1950s for work. It’s mostly about her time and her experiences there, (it’s written in a close third person), but so much of the book is also a period piece, highlighting the personality of New York City following the Wars and the differences between the small town Eilis grew up in and the life she’s just beginning on her own.

You may have seen that it’s recently been made into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. I saw it a few weeks ago and loved it which is why I bought the book. I’ve given it five stars and the movie deserves the same. In a quiet way, both are extremely powerful stories and I think that’s what I love about them. I love how introspective and humble they are, telling life as it is and not the grand adventure New York City is sometimes painted to be.

Homesickness is one of the main themes and Toibin describes it so acutely at different points in the story. In the early chapters, Eilis’ homesickness is a pit of sadness. It gnaws at her insides and slowly poisons her mood. She goes to work and goes home the same as anyone, but she becomes numb to it all, consumed by the loss of her old life and the disconnection from friends and family. Later, when Eilis returns to Ireland to visit her mother, the thing she’s longed to do all the years that she’s been gone, she realizes that she no longer misses what she left behind. She misses family and friends, but her life is in America and in a way she experiences a different sort of homesickness, the kind you can only have when you have two lives to remember.

Like most people, I’ve gone home to visit my parents this holiday season. I was home over Thanksgiving and for a few days around Christmas and I loved spending time with my family. But I stopped being homesick a long time ago. I look forward to those trips because I get to see my parents and take time away from work and commuting and the craziness of the end of the year. But as much as I love that break, I also love coming back to my own apartment, my own friends, and my own life when it’s over. And like Eilis I couldn’t even tell you when that happened, when I developed two lives.

I’m familiar with the despair part of homesickness. I’ve been best friends with the anxiety of not knowing anyone in someplace new and at different times in my life my phone and my email were my constant companions. But at some point in the last year I became truly comfortable with my post grad life and my sense of home began to change in the same way that it did for Eilis. I began to feel a lingering sense of homesickness for both parts of myself – the girl I was and the woman I am – and to have noticed it just now is maybe a sign of growing up, of moving on and moving forward.

I see a lot of myself in Eilis. I see the girl I’ve been in her early chapters – tentative, anxious, and reserved – and the woman I’m becoming in the final pages. I feel like I understand her and her story because even though I haven’t immigrated across the Atlantic, I’ve followed in her footsteps and struck out on my own in a way that was as dramatic for me as that move was for her. I’ve grown and changed because of it and to see my own self reflected in her character is the kind of powerful writing that doesn’t come around often, the kind that should be treasured and shared.

So if you’re in any way going through what I have – change, moving, growing up – you’d probably find a lot of yourself in Eilis’ story, too. I’d highly recommend both the book and the movie to anyone with even the slightest interest.

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