After the second World War, there are no jobs to be found in Ireland, so Ellis Lacey leaves her native Ireland for New York, only to be called back the moment she finds her feet.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel is released in UK cinemas this week, and already called an Oscar contender by critics. While the book has reaped similar praise, this feels more like an instinctive reaction to a plot idea that inspires grander ideas than are actually realised within this relatively short novel.
Brooklyn is neatly split into parts that chronicle the different stages of Ellis’ adventure. There is the time before her departure to Brooklyn in which we get to know her family and circumstances, then the horrific sea journey, the rhythm she settles into in her new life, and then the part where it all comes apart.
These parts however, are in no way equal, so by the time the book gathers any sort of dramatic momentum, it is almost over.
Tóibín does take care to portray the difficulties a young woman a long way from home has to battle and that many readers feel sympathy towards, like living with people who are not really likeable or the confusing stage of depression set off by homesickness, however a lot of this consideration gets lost in his bare-bones writing style, which in turn explains the shortness of the book.
To enjoy Brooklyn, the reader has to do a lot of the work himself in imagining Ellis’ surroundings and feelings. A large part of the novel goes by completely without conflict or mentionable event, as we watch the protagonist get up in the morning, go to work and return home.
While you may argue that most of this simplicity sets the stage for the love triangle Ellis eventually finds herself in once she first finds love with the charmingly forward Tony in Brooklyn, only to have to start her life anew in Ireland following a family tragedy that makes her cross paths with the steady Jim, it all comes across as disproportionate.
Ellis largely remains passive throughout the book as events and men simply seem to happen to her, for no discernible reason. She is intelligent and able to stand up for herself, but there is no real development taking place, no surprise that might finally elevate Brooklyn from a book you read to pass time on the tube to something you can’t put down.
Honest in its intentions but clunky in its execution, Brooklyn is a realistic, relatable story hindered by its simple prose.
Published: 1st October 2015 (originally 2009)