This is a good, little book. It centers entirely the development of a single character. Eilis (pronounced just a little more tightly in the mouth than "Alice") has grown up in a medium-size town in Ireland in 1950's, where job opportunities are few. An American priest, who has been connived by her more expansive sister, propels her to Brooklyn. Her world in Brooklyn is enmeshed in Irish connections and seems more like 1935 than 1955. She lives in an Irish boarding, house, works in a shop managed by Irish, and chiefly attends Irish church functions. But she grows in independence and sophistication, learns bookkeeping, and drifts into love with an American man of Italian descent. Then the death of her charismatic sister calls her back home. There she drifts into romantic involvement with another likely husband. She has to decide whether to stay or return to her commitments in Brooklyn. Her weakly-felt independence turns out to be constrained by the gossip of despotic, small-town figures.
The heroine is very likable, moderately smart, and moderately pretty. Tóibín doesn't tell us these things. Rather he lets the reaction of other characters show them to us. It is an engaging way to develop our understanding of the character and is part of the story. The only other fully drawn characters are her mother and her sister, Rose. Her mother is in a constant state of muted anxiety because she wishes her daughter well in the world and at the same time wishes her to stay home. Her sister knows from before the beginning of the book that she has a condition that may kill her at any time, although we do not. Her condition frees her to lead a more interesting life, more impulsive, free of the stereotypes of work and marriage of the village. At first we believe that our heroine is in a sense living through her sister, but later we realize that her sister was hoping to live through her.
The author is omniscient, and we see into the thoughts and feelings of the heroine but not very deeply because they are neither deep nor intense. Remember, she is 19 and from a rather unsophisticated background. Her fully realized and detailed characterization is like a finely cut empty space filled only with pastel inference but clearly etched within a lush medium of other people’s acts and feelings. That medium is part of the warmth of the novel.
Keeping silent is important in this book. Characters tellingly do not utter their thoughts and often fail to articulate to themselves their own ideas and impulses. In her family, in her town, and in her restricted corner of Brooklyn many things ride on unspoken. A stereotypical American popular novel would see such reticence as a failure -: yet another family secrets novel. But it is not so simple. For example, when Eilis returns to her home town, she does not speak of her romantic involvements in Brooklyn and only slowly and reticently articulates them to herself, yet this process is how she finds her necessary path.
The prose is simple, carefully wrought, but not striking, like the story, like the heroine, always appropriate. Here is Eilis on her first day back in her home town:
Eilis wondered if her mother had always had this way of speaking that seemed to welcome no reply, and suddenly realized that she had seldom been alone with her before, she'd always had Rose to stand between her and her mother, Rose who would have plenty to say to both and questions to ask, comments to make, and opinions to offer. It must be hard for her mother too, she thought, and it would be best to wait a few days and see if her mother might become interested in her life in America enough for her slowly to introduce the subject of Tony, ....