The reluctant immigrant; Brooklyn
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 November 2015)

Eilis Lacey, the heroine of the novel and movie Brooklyn, seems reconciled to being a wallflower at the dance of life.

In the village of Enniscorthy, in southeast Ireland, she shares a narrow, boring existence with her widowed mother and her sister Rose. She lives humbly in Rose's shadow, painfully aware that Rose is a more competent woman who socializes with the town's leaders, dresses with flair and holds down a demanding office job.

Eilis makes a little money from odd jobs but has never found permanent work. Nor has she attracted anyone who might marry her. People worry about her and their worrying starts the plot of Colm Tóibín's beautiful 2009 novel, Brooklyn. They conspire to create a destiny for her in America. Rose consults Father Flood, a priest from Enniscorthy who now lives in Brooklyn but comes home for occasional visits. Rose met him at the golf club. He thinks he could find a job for Eilis in his new parish, and an appropriate rooming house as well.

This is the last thing Eilis wants. She's appalled by the idea of leaving forever her home and her friends to live among millions of strangers who might never accept her. As Tóibín writes, "Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbours, the same routines in the same streets. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared."

Even so, she finds herself talking seriously about it when Father Flood visits to discuss the details. The plan goes ahead whether she likes it or not.

Up to the last minute, she desperately wants to say plainly that she doesn't want to go, that Rose should go instead. But that kind of frankness is unknown in her family. "They could do everything," Tóibín writes, "except say out loud what it was they were thinking."

Tóibín's book falls into the tradition of the immigration novel but there's otherwise nothing familiar about it. In the complex and compassionate way that his readers have come to expect, he manages to make Eilis seem admirable and yet unfortunately submissive. A life short on achievement has made her so compliant that she agrees to turn herself insideout just to keep from offending her sister and her mother.

This sequence unrolls in Tóibín's early chapters and makes us want to know how she will deal with a change she finds terrifying. It also invites us to think freshly about immigration.

Eilis has been selected by her family to go abroad. How often was that the truth about the immigrants who populated most of the Americas? How many of them were reluctant migrants like Eilis, cast out of the Old Country, forced to transplant themselves?

This novel, touching and absorbing, has recently been recast as a film, expertly directed by John Crowley, starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. Ronan's subtle reactions to whatever happens make us see Eilis as self-aware and purposeful. As we watch she becomes steadily less docile. She grasps the promising new identity she's offered. When she takes a trip home to Enniscorthy we're not surprised the people there treat her as a woman transformed. Ronan also makes her as lovable as she is in print.

Crowley transfers from the text Tóibín's sensitive feel for the yearning and anguish of homesickness.

Eilis, matured by her experience, learns how to enjoy her new environment. She turns out to be a good clerk in a department store, wins a certificate in bookkeeping by studying at night and falls in love with a highly suitable plumber who has great plans for a housing development he's working on with his brothers.

Emory Cohen's performance makes Tony an excellent partner. Julie Walters plays the owner of Eilis's boarding house as a god-fearing tyrant who believes piety requires her to censor the dinner conversation of her tenants, disallowing everything she considers improper. Brid Brennan plays Mrs. Kelly, the shopkeeper in Ireland who briefly employs Eilis. The casting of those two dragons drew a nice comment from Tóibín. He said Crowley improved on the novel by allowing their meanness to contrast with the innocence of Eilis. "The minute they speak you know the world that Eilis has to navigate."

The 1950s Brooklyn where Eilis lands proves more frantic and more demanding than dozy little Enniscorthy. Nick Hornby's script expands this. The movie shows us certain immigrants nourish prejudices against other immigrants. When Tony takes his new girlfriend home to meet his Italian-American family, his little brother blurts out, "We don't like the Irish here," embarrassing everyone by revealing what the whole family thinks. At work Eilis's supervisor asks why she's recently seemed so happy. Eilis admits she has a boyfriend, a nice Italian boy.

"Italian?" says the supervisor. "Does he talk about his mother?" "No." "Does he talk all the time about baseball?" "No."

"Keep him. He's the only one in New York."

Tóibín has used Enniscorthy in four novels so far. Not surprisingly, that's where he was born and grew up. He's proven himself a wanderer, first visiting Italy for a while, then teaching at American universities. Perhaps he's sometimes felt the way Eilis feels early in Brooklyn: "She was nobody here. She was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty." But, like so many immigrants, she fills the emptiness with human connections and learns how to live a new life in the New World.

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