One summer holiday, as a ‘project’, I decided to research my family. Not my family tree, you understand, but my family. I was ten, I think; eleven at most. I devised a list of fifteen questions and then interviewed all my immediate family members, parents, brother, sister, cousin, aunts, uncle, granddad. (As children go I was a pain in the arse.)
I still have the scrapbook from that summer. Some questions were factual (date of birth, where you grew up), some were trite (happiest moment, saddest moment). Question 15, though, I’m proud of: “Would you contribute a photograph to this book?” This is how I come to have some really old family photographs, including a photograph of my Mum’s cousin, Rita.
Rita came out of the blue. I’d never seen her, met her, or heard her name. The photograph is in sepia, in a studio. A head and shoulders shot, Rita seated side on and looking over her shoulder at the camera, face tilted down but eyes looking up, like a coquettish angel, studio lighting on her hair and blouse. She might not have been the prettiest female blood-relation I could lay claim to – my mum’s youngest sister, my Auntie T, arguably had that accolade – but she was certainly the most glamorous, not least because she’d emigrated to America and lived, last anyone had heard, in New York.
Pre air-passenger travel this meant sailing from Liverpool to New York; letters came to and fro the same way (no skype, no facebook, no mobile telephones – and most private homes didn’t have landlines). Once you’d gone, you’d gone.
Eilis Lacey, the heroine of Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, like Rita, makes that same crossing, leaving behind her mother and sister, Rose, in Ireland.
It’s the 1950s. Eilis faces sea sickness, home sickness. But in New York she works hard, enrols in night class, volunteers at church, keeps herself busy. And at a dance in the church hall she meets Tony…
Then Rose’s sudden death sees Eilis arranging a month’s leave from work to go back to Ireland to visit her mum. Back home Eilis meets (or, more accurately, re-meets) Jim Farrell…
Two countries, two men, two possible futures.
Brooklyn won the Costa Novel Award in 2009. It’s filled with interesting minor characters: Father Flood, the American priest who arranges Eilis’ job and accommodation; Mrs Kehoe, her landlady in Brooklyn; Tony’s precocious little brother, Frank. One, tiny gripe is that Eilis is far too passive – even the decision to emigrate was made for her by Rose – but I found her engaging nevertheless and the nub of her problem is easy to identify with: isn’t it a shame we get only one life?
Rating: ** Worth reading