Brooklyn – Colm Toibin (2009)

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Sometimes I happen to pick up the perfect book to read for one reason or another, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn just ended up being one of those incredible experiences. I’d been having just an OK reading life lately – nothing too exciting (although the African-Am titles in Feb were great) – and was strolling around looking for a domestic novel of sorts: nothing that dramatic and with a good story about everyday lives with easily relatable characters. Brooklyn was a perfect storm of great reading for me, and, as you can probably surmise, I loved every minute of reading it.

It’s an Irish novel set in fairly recent times (mid-20th century?) with a young woman growing up in a small town with not much to offer her. Her family’s priest knows another Irish priest in Brooklyn who is willing to set her up with a new life out there in the already well-established Irish neighborhood and her parents feel that it’s an opportunity that she could not turn down. This novel follows that journey and protagonist Eilis Lacey as she travels forth into the great unknown and a new life.

Toibin is a well known Irish author (see review of his 2005 The Blackwater Lightship here), and after thoroughly enjoying my read of the Irish writer Edna O’Brien Country Girls trilogy of novels, thought this would be a good pick for now. Additionally, I’d just seen the really good film adaptation of Brooklyn the other day and after having really enjoyed that, thought I would do a brief compare-and-contrast (as you do).

So it’s a narrative arc that’s not really that thrilling when you look at it from a distance, but when you are immersed in Eilis’ life throughout the story, it was such a strong pull for me to continue reading to find out how things worked out for the characters. In fact, it was so strong that I ended up staying really late a couple of nights as I just had to find out what Eilis chose in the end. (And I’m a dormouse usually, sleeping-wise.)

I’m not sure what exactly was so perfect about this book. The writing was great, the narrative arc was strong (without being predictable), but I think it was the actual characters (especially Eilis and her friend Tony) who really pulled me back into the pages each time. I became so immersed in their story that whenever I did end up putting the book down (for sleep and life etc.), it was a struggle to not pick up the story at every chance that I could get.

It’s a great feeling to have such a connection with a book’s story and characters, so all praise must surely go to Toibin for inventing such characters and then writing about them in such a way that I was really pretty riveted for the whole read.

I know. This sounds a bit gushy, but if you’re looking for a REALLY good read, a read that sucks you in and then keeps you there (even when you’re doing something else), you may want to try Brooklyn. It will definitely end up on my list of favorite books for the year, and I’m jazzed to try more of his work now. It was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and other big booky prizes, all of which it deserves if you ask me.

Highly recommended. (The film is good too, btw.)

Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. – E. O. Somerville and Martin Ross (1899)

book204A light-hearted humorous novel about an ex-British Army officer who becomes appointed to a rural country in Ireland as the Resident Magistrate*, this was quite a fun read. Published at the turn of the century, it’s a very horsey-centered book with tales of the inexperienced young outsider facing the events of an insular small rural community as the person in charge.

This is more a series of short stories all interlinked by a core group of common characters more than a straight novel, and reminded me in some ways of James Herriot in regard to “big-city outsider comes to unwelcoming but heart of gold village in the country” situation. It is packed with long descriptions of fox hunts, horse races and village happenings, some of which were rather exciting to read (despite my opposition to fox hunting and animal maltreatment). It was quite hard to read about the rather frequent whippings that the horses and donkeys endured and were obviously par for the course back then. It was true to its time though, even though that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. (Cue: Black Beauty review here.)

The authors were really two women, one called Edith Somerville (the E. O. Somerville person) from England, and the other her cousin Violet Florence Martin (who wrote under Martin Ross) who was from Ireland.  The two were second cousins and shared a great-grandfather between them. The name “Martin Ross” that Violet chose came from her surname and the name of the land that her family owned in West Ireland and both published under male names, presumably to give them more credibility at the time.  Edith and Violet became close partners, and had critical and popular success with their early works which were a variation of the Victorian sensation novels. However, the commercial success of their lighter comical novels (starting with the Irish RM series) led their agent to convince them to leave serious novel writing and to focus more on what the popular market wanted.  (Rather Wodehousian humor in many ways, I thought.)

This book series was also made into a TV series which ran between 1983-1985 on TV in the UK. (I didn’t catch it so can’t vouch for its quality.)

Violet died quite early in 1915 of a brain tumor, and although Edith vowed that she would and could never write again after Violet’s death, she was persuaded to do so by believing (as were the times) that Violet could communicate with her through spiritualism séances (a la Arthur Conan Doyle et al.) and continued to publish under both her own name and Violet’s and under Violet’s “direction.”

There are continuations of this book, but not sure I liked it that much…

  • A Resident Magistrate (RM) was a title for magistrates in locations that were/are governed by the British. Personnel were usually well versed in law and well connected (as they were rather cushy jobs) and were brought into an area from outside to guide the more local lay magistrates.  The “Resident” referred to the requirement that the magistrate had to live in the actual area to which he (always he) was assigned.