In the era of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland has become as prosperous as anywhere in Europe (until last month, at least) and attracts immigrants from all over the place, it's easy to forget that as recently as the 1950s it was still a country which many of its young people were forced to leave in search of work and the chance of a life they could never envisage enjoying at home. America was their El Dorado but exile there tended to be permanent: people couldn't afford to jet to and fro every few months to stay in touch. Even a telephone call home was a rarity. The Skype age was unimaginable.
This is the subject matter of Colm Tóibín's new novel. Eilis Lacey is the youngest of five children in a middle-sized town not far from Dublin. Her mother is a widow, her three brothers have all left for Birmingham, and her unmarried sister Rose's life centres on the golf club. Eilis, who has a head for figures and the height of whose ambition is to be a a bookkeeper, is found a lowly job serving in the town's general store. When the chance of a post in a large clothes shop in Brooklyn comes up, via an Irish parish priest there, Eilis has little choice but to take it, though she has no wish to leave home at all, much less for America.
Tóibín's depiction of the stultifying dullness of Irish provincial life is subtle yet merciless, bearing echoes of Dubliners and William Trevor. At first, Eilis finds that the new world is much like the old, with Irish landlady taking over from Irish mother, and Irish priest, Father Flood, keeping a close eye on her welfare. It is, incidentally, a pleasant relief to encounter a fictional Irish priest who is not portrayed as a predatory paedophile but instead as the fulcrum of community life, doing good in public and private. Tóibín's description of his all-day Christmas lunch for the single, sad, lonely Irishmen of the parish and beyond, at which Eilis helps out, is a miniature masterpiece.
Eilis's own flowering (and eventual deflowering) in the world of opportunity that New York offers is also sympathetically handled. It is an intimate psychological portrait of a young woman discovering her own strength of mind and character, although at root she remains something of a mystery (can a male writer, however sensitive, ever really understand the female characters he creates?). With a nice Italian boyfriend, her accountancy qualifications in sight and Ireland feeling increasingly remote, Eilis looks set to grasp her little slice of the American dream until family tragedy intervenes and pulls her back home. Will she be sucked back into the sluggish current of her native backwater or escape back to the distant American shore? This is a delicate and understated book which will help to consolidate Tóibín's reputation as one of the most thoughtful and readable of contemporary novelists.