Culture Tip: Brooklyn
Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, published in 2009 and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is a touching story of a shy young Irish girl named Eilis Lacey who, during the 1950s, almost accidentally moves to the US. Helped by an Irish priest in Brooklyn, Eilis finds work in a department store and lives in a boarding house. She struggles at first but falls in love with a Italian-American plumber and starts to blossom in this friendly New World. But suddenly her family in Ireland suffer a tragedy and she comes back. What happens next is the heart-rending focus of an unforgettable story.
Not all great novels make even passable movies, but Brooklyn (released in the UK on November 6) defies such odds. A quiet story told with great compassion (the screenplay is by Nick Hornby), it digs deep into the rock-solid sense of home that we all have inside us. It doesn’t matter that the small Wexford town of Enniscorthy holds no work or excitement for Eilis; it’s where her heart is, where everything she knows resides. Even when she’s starting to acclimatise to living in the United States, she feels a terrible sadness when her mind turns to her mother, her sister, her home. Everything in her Brooklyn life is brightly-coloured, excitingly novel; but home is home, and the pull is strong.
Without ladling out the stereotypes of Oirland or overdoing the innocence of the young heroine, Brooklyn grabs you by the throat with its simple premise. So many of us have travelled far from our homes and while we may love our new lives, we are still tied to our old homes, where we were formed. And we may struggle with the guilt we feel about those we left behind.
The spirit of moving away from home cuts through more than what’s on the screen too. Author Colm Toibin now lives in the US but is himself from Enniscorthy. Producer Finola Dwyer is from New Zealand, but her mother was Irish and left Dublin to marry in New Zealand the same year that the fictional Eilis did; the director, John Crowley, is Irish-born, now living in London; the 20-year old actress playing Eilis, Saoirse Ronan, is the child of Irish parents who travelled to the US for work, then returned to their homeland where she was raised.
As Toibin recently told the Washington Post: “We were lucky with Saoirse … she was able to play things that are very real to her: the whole idea of going away and being away, what home means. In a way this has been the secret history, of Ireland over the last 150 years: people leaving and coming back for a short time and leaving again.”
While homesickness, and the emotions that bubble up from missing what’s familiar to us, doesn’t change much in 60-odd years, the realities of life at the time are sharply different. The trip to Brooklyn takes days by boat, and once she’s there the letters from home take weeks to arrive. You’re aware that this is recent history - I remember seeing pictures of my own mother wearing clothes just like Eilis’s (once she got to Brooklyn, that is) - but in this time of super-fast change, it seems otherworldly in its innocence and strong sense of community. And all the more affecting and beautiful for it.