Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Zoe Heller said Brooklyn was the most compelling and moving portrait of a young woman she has read in a long time and though I’d give that accolade to the narrator of A Girl is a Half Formed Thing there is much that’s moving and compelling in this novel. In fact it’s hard to fault except perhaps to say that it’s composed on a small canvas and so lacks the breadth of a truly thrilling and first rate novel. Basically it’s a concise and artful study of the sensibility of a young girl who suddenly finds herself uprooted – a young Irish girl, Eilis who, faced with a lack of opportunities at home, is encouraged by her sister to emigrate alone to Brooklyn. The prose is simple and lucid – never straying into linguistic territory the protagonist herself would be incapable of formulating. Eilis herself is both easily pleased and fickle. She appears to suffer from a lack of imagination which means ultimately she will always choose the pragmatic option. And this becomes a novel about how easily we are ensnared by fate, or rather, how casually we can make fateful decisions and are then ensnared by one narrative at the expense of the alternatives.
I tend to favour writers who are capable of formulating sentences beyond my own capabilities, who can enliven the world with feats of linguistic artistry and there is no such writing in Brooklyn for which I’m going to be a bit stingy with my stars. Immensely charming though it is Brooklyn ultimately is more of a paddle than a swim.

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