Review 1765: Brooklyn

It wasn’t until I finished reading Colm Tóibín’s latest novel on Sunday that I noticed no review for Brooklyn, which I was sure I had read. I looked back at my old records, and sure enough, I read it in March 2016, but mistakenly removed the flag from my notes that indicates I haven’t reviewed it yet. So, here goes.

Brooklyn is a quiet story set in post-World War II Ireland and New York. It is about the tension between yearning for home and desiring to make your own way in the world.

Eilis Lacey has finished a bookkeeping course and is eager for work, but the only job she can find in her small Irish home town is clerking at Miss Kelly’s store on Sunday mornings. Her brothers have emigrated to England for work, and the family is supported by her older sister Rose, who works as a bookkeeper. Rose wants more for Eilis, so she arranges for Father Flood, a visiting priest, to find Eilis a job in Brooklyn.

The best he can do for her is a clerk’s job in a department store, Bartocci’s. Eilis enjoys her job, but she is frightfully homesick and does not much enjoy living in Mrs. Kehoe’s boardinghouse. Reasoning that being busy will make her less homesick, Father Flood signs her up for courses at Brooklyn College.

Soon, she is making a new life for herself, doing well in her courses, and even finding a boyfriend, a cheerful Italian plumber named Tony. She is finally settling into her new life when something unexpected occurs that takes her back to Ireland and a choice between her two lives.

Written in Tóibín’s graceful prose, Brooklyn is a quiet but powerful character study and exploration of the immigrant experience in post-World War II America.

Nora Webster

The Empty Family

Galway Bay

Day 574: Little Bee

Cover for Little BeeLittle Bee begins her story from a detention center in England, where she has been held for two years. During this time, she has been learning British English in the hopes she will be allowed to stay. After another girl seduces a guard, Little Bee is released with her and two other girls, with no papers or money, into the depths of the English countryside. Bee calls the only person she knows in England, Andrew O’Rourke, a man she met on a beach in Nigeria two years before.

Sarah O’Rourke is getting ready to attend her husband’s funeral. He had been depressed ever since that day on the beach. Then, suddenly, he committed suicide. When someone arrives at the door, Sarah is surprised to find Little Bee.

Eventually, we find out what happened that day on the beach—how Little Bee lost her sister and Sarah her finger. Sarah is posed with a problem. What can she do about Little Bee to help her stay protected in England? To the British government, Nigeria is a safe country from which Little Bee does not need refuge. The government does not know or is unwilling to learn that the oil companies are murdering entire villages to get rights to the oil beneath them.

I found Little Bee to be affecting all right, and it informed me of a situation I did not know existed. With all the bad news about various countries in Africa lately, I had not heard mention of Nigeria (at least not in this respect).

A few people have written reviews complaining about the ending. Perhaps they like their endings nicely wrapped up. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I did feel sometimes as if I was being manipulated. In addition, Little Bee’s voice, although enchanting and original, is not consistent enough. At times she is amazingly naive, sometimes convincingly so, others not so much. It is some of her more sophisticated knowledge that occasionally doesn’t ring true with the character Cleave has created and can’t be explained by two years of reading classics.

In any case, it is Sarah’s stunning naivety that is more unbelievable, both on the beach that day and when she decides to interview people in Nigeria instead of immediately contacting a lawyer or her embassy in an attempt to save Bee.

With all these caveats, I enjoyed the book, though, and give it a qualified recommendation.