The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library #1) by Genevieve Cogman

If a book was called ‘The Invisible Library’, you would buy it just for the title, right? I would, and I did. It turned out to be a pleasant read, though mildly dissappointing. I might try the next books in the series, just to see if the author manages to tie together the cool elements of this story to an actual story.

Imagine a reality wherein important decisions in history create two parallel worlds: one for each choice. This gives us an endless amount of slightly different versions of the universe. To us this might seem a purely theoretical interpretation of quantum mechanics, but for our protagonist, Irene, it’s reality. She is from a different world than our own and an agent of a noble institute: the Library, which exists between the alternate worlds and collects works of literature from all of them. The purpose of the Library is to preserve and study the books that make the worlds what they are, while its existence remains a secret to ordinary people.

Agents like Irene are sent on missions to acquire books that their superiors want to consult or preserve. Sometimes this means quietly buying a copy, other times it means stealing a valuable volume from a heavily guarded vault. In this book, it means Irene has to enter Victorian London in a chaotic steampunk world, with a young apprentice-librarian, Kai, under her supervision. Cue the zeppelins, robots, mysterious Fae, masked balls and a cat burglar, all in the search for a first edition copy of Grimm’s fairy tales that has been stolen by someone else before Irene got a chance to. There’s many stories out there which employ some version of the ‘wise older man with sexy, young, female assistent’-trope. In this book the roles are reversed and this works out fine, especially as Irene is professional enough to to recognise that she’s attracted to Kai but not let that distract her from the mission.

I think the central idea of studying books for intrinsic merit is satisfying, even if there’s remarkably little mention of books in this book about books. The bulk of the book is about the main characters trying to escape from dangerous situations, which is fun, but the story suffers from it. Most characters seem a bit two-dimensional, though the author tries to make them profound and interesting. Take for example the apprentice, Kai: he’s supposed to be beautiful, charming and enigmatic. The way he appeared to me while reading, he certainly was beautiful, but somehow unattractive and frankly, annoying. He seemed just a whiny, pretty boy.

To be honest, I could deal with how annoying Kai is, if only the author would have followed the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’. Instead, she explains everything to death, leaving nothing to be figured out for yourself. It would be much more exciting to encounter characters who have something to hide, if you didn’t have to read over and over again that they have something to hide. The art of suggestion is a power the writer has yet to discover. Maybe she does in the other three installments of the series – I haven’t yet read those. Additionally, the explanation often happens through comparing alternate worlds to our own – the reader’s world, that is. This bothered me because the story is told through Irene’s eyes, and she’s not from our world. Our reality is not the norm by which she would logically measure what she sees around her.

Fortunately, just as I felt quite bored with the book, something delightfully disgusting happened, and my attention was drawn again. There’s enough adventure in this book to keep you entertained. Combine that with whirring monsters and different kinds of magic, and you have a sort of action film in book form. Don’t expect too much depth from the characters and forgive the author for some predictable plot twists: what remains is a reasonably enjoyable fantasy adventure.

Tardis award for an alternative Victorian London

Genevieve Cogman, The Invisible Library (London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

The invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is not a book like any other I’ve ever read. And the main reason for this is the combination of exquisite artwork and a wonderful story. Yes, I repeat: a combination of these two. At first I was a bit worried that this book would be one of those mostly famous for its artwork, which is amazing to be sure. But the story is equally as magical and it all fits together wonderfully. Like clockwork, one might even say.

This book is a fantastical historical novel, set in 1930’s Paris. Hugo Cabret is a little boy, an orphan, who lives inside the walls and ceiling of a Paris railway station, where he tends to the clocks, though no one ever sees him. But we get to know him as a thief, when he steels a toy mouse from a toy booth, in order to finish his automaton with the little gears from the toy. The automaton is a sort of robot that his father, a horologist, once found in the museum and became his life’s work to get it to work again. After his father’s death, Hugo has been trying to finish the automaton on his own. Hugo is caught however at the toy booth and made to hand over his father’s notebook with the drawing of the automaton. Without this book he won’t be able to finish it. But this is where he meets Isabelle, a little girl determined to help Hugo in finishing the automaton. In the second part of the book they succeed and the automaton starts writing something quite unexpected. I won’t spoil what happens next, but Hugo meets new friends, has a completely different future all of a sudden and Isabelle is finally allowed to go to the cinema, where the unveiling of the plot will take place.

Now the first thing you notice about this book is that it’s 530 pages long, but you’ll be able to finish it in just a couple of hours or less even… How, you might ask? About half of the pages are drawings, so part of the book feels almost like a graphic novel. These are not illustrations; they don’t illustrate, they tell a part of the story. For example, you have about 20 pages of pictures and then another 20 with text, quite ingenious! And these drawing are not only in great detail, but they convey such emotion as well, which is just lovely. Not only are these images such a nifty part of the plot, but it also gives the story a very magical feel. Let me just show you a couple of the drawings in the book, just to give you a sense of it.

hugo 4hugo 3hugo 1hugo 2hugo 5

Pretty cool, right?

Of course the drawings make the story quite unique, but as I hinted at before, the story fits like clockwork. Which is pretty cool, because it’s all about clocks and gears and tiny details! I read this book in one sitting because you start off with this mystery and you just want answers. Yes, at first the book may seem a little gloomy and slow, but that lasted only for about five minutes for me. Apart from the mystery, I very much enjoy old cinema, clockwork robots and the 30’s setting. Dare I hint at a little bit of steampunk here? I just appreciated the setting of this story greatly and I think everyone will.

The characters are very lovable, though not boring, which may sound easy, but most writers don’t manage to pull off. However, if you’re looking for a book with a psychological plunge into the human spirit with each character: this is not it. Remember, it is a children’s book and everyone does have a background story and a specific personality. I very much enjoyed Isabelle of course, who’s a little ladylike in her ways, but mostly very headstrong. Hugo is adorable as well as independent, brilliant and inventive. But again, the drawings of the characters really help you create an image of them in your mind, with a personality and all.

A little thieving boy, living inside the clocks of a train station in 1930’s Paris, tries to solve the mystery of a clockwork robot, but gets caught stealing and is forced to accept help from a stubborn little girl. Need I say more? What a brilliant book this was, absolutely loved it. Not a very challenging book or one filled with life lessons, but a great book to dive right in and dream of gears and levers performing magic, just for a while.

Horologists Award: Anyone with a love of gears and levers will swoon over this book

Brian Selznick, The invention of Hugo Cabret (New York, 2007)

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Thura Nightingale 

The trees by Ali Shaw

Let us first take a moment to appreciate the cover of this book, because isn’t it gorgeous! You do not see it because computers screens are 2d, but there is even relief on it! Take your time to feast your eyes and I’ll be stroking the book in the meantime.

Done? Then I’ll proceed.

This was a difficult review for me to write, because I both loved this book and, at the same time, am convinced it is not particularly good. Hopefully this review explains why I think that

This book has one of the scariest first chapters I have ever read. This was very surprising because the first few pages are not scary at all. Those pages tell about a down-on-his luck guy who is kind of a wimp, named Adrien, who gets home from the take-out place in the rain. He then proceeds to watch old western movies and to drink beer to lament his loneliness. His wife, Michelle, is on a business trip and he strongly fears the marriage is falling apart due to his mistakes. In the early morning, when every sane person is still sleeping, without a warning trees pop out everywhere out of the ground impaling everything they find on their way, including floors, ceilings and, sadly, the neighbour. The trees are indiscriminate. This is all written in a haunting style giving the first chapter the feel of a horror book, which it not really is for the remainder of the book. After the coming of the trees Adrien manages to get out of his house and goes to the streets to see the stretch of the disaster where he meets Hannah, a nature lover. Adrien, Hannah and her son Seb decide to go on a road trip to find Hannah’s brother and Adrien’s wife.

One of the best things in this book are the characters, which are interesting and well-executed. There is the self-conscious Adrien, who has trouble to see good in the world. He pretends to go along with Hannah and Seb to find his wife, but is actually too scared to be alone. There is Hannah, the nature lover, who in the beginning is happy with the trees and sees them as some kind of blessing, until something nasty happens which changes her view of nature. There is Seb, her son the wiz kid, who during his ‘normal’ life stayed as far away from nature as possible. He naturally has a complex relationship with his mother. Later they are joined by a ninja-like Japanese girl, Hiroko, who fled to England, where this book starts, because she had a fight with her father. She used to go camping with him until he found a new wife. Now the trees have come she is stuck and she can not make amends with her father. Later she adopts a fox as pet and then the troop of adventures is complete.

The character building in this book happens with a realistic pace. A big part of the book talks about how the characters deal with their issues, but no one has sudden superhuman capacities to deal with life. Personally I like that a lot because it is more realistic. Life is hard and dealing with the mess of it takes time, but also at the end of the day life will always remain difficult. Take Adrien for example: he is nihilistic, passive and actually kind of an asshole. It never really becomes clear why, but it appears some kind of miracle his wife stayed with him. Every effort she made to make his life easier seemed to pull him further into his conviction that life is basically a sad pile of futility going nowhere. Throughout the book Adrien does become stronger and less passive, but in the end, when he has a major decision to make, it is still based on the basic characteristics he had in the beginning of the book.

With all this talk about the characters I almost forgot to talk about the mystery in this book! And that is actually exactly what I imagine the author thought when he wrote this book. For the largest part this book it is a semi-friendly road trip with the mismatched band of mountaineers with an occasional sighting of little tree-like creatures and mysterious hippo like unicorns (yes you read that correctly). It is clear from the beginning there is a mystery behind the trees, but hints of what that might be are only slowly dropped.  This is a shame, because what becomes clear of the nature of the trees is very cool. One thing the tree-creatures allow is for people to ‘become’ the forest and experience life from the viewpoint of its inhabitants. The writer drops some hints of where the trees and creatures possibly came from, but now I think of it, does not always follow up on those hints. For example there is a church somewhere indicating the creatures have always been there, but that is all that’s said about it. Loose threats like this happen more often, until the end of the book where suddenly something unexpected happens, which I won’t tell. I think the mystery part of this book could have been developed more extensively and also I would have liked to have more answers at the end of the book, because now I still have no clue what actually happened in the end.

In the end, this is the kind of book I would recommend everybody to read, but only once. It is a very special book and the human stories makes it a comforting read because you really get to know and like everybody. Even Adrien has my sympathy, because he is so understandable beneath his flaws. Also I personally loved the atmosphere with the planet-wide forest, because I like apocalyptic books. However, a lot in this book felt unfinished and rushed. It’s a shame because the book really shows potential with all the themes it talks about. So read this book to make the characters in this mysterious tree-world part of your own world. I only fear by reading it more often the flaws will become more noticeable which could alter the good impression it leaves you with the first reading.

Tree hugging award for a book in which trees are everywhere, literally!

Ali Shaw, The trees (London, 2016)

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Bella G. Bear

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Some time ago, when I was a mere ten years old, my parents took my siblings and me to the seaside in the summer. Of course, I had stocked up on library books beforehand and managed to read through a bunch of them in the early morning hours. One of them was Little Women, by Louisa Alcott, and it stuck. I didn’t know then that it was an American classic, I didn’t know whether it was considered good or bad, but from that time on the world of these little women became my world. A world to hide away in.

The novel tells the modest story of the four teenage March sisters, growing up under the care of their mother (the Dutch title is ‘Onder moeders vleugels’ which translates to ‘Under mother’s wings’). In the meantime their father is an army chaplain in the American Civil War. In a Romantic, nineteenth century trope, the family is of high social standing but has little financial means, their father having lost their fortune in a past effort to help a friend. Despite financial hardship, the family celebrates togetherness, domesticity and kindness above riches and material comfort. That sounds virtuous, and it is. Mother and Father March portray the ideal parents, leading their daughters to adulthood in model fashion. The daughters themselves are naturally not that perfect (yet): the novel is the story of their struggles and coming of age. I’ll introduce them to you:

Amy, twelve years old at the beginning of the book, is a right little lady who fancies herself almost a princess. She misuses difficult words in an effort to impress her sisters and she loves pretty clothes. At the girls’ school she attends she gets bullied by the other children, because her father is not rich and she can’t afford the lovely dresses and trinkets her classmates own.

Beth is an incredibly shy fourteen-year-old, kept at home because school terrifies her. She’s a little angel, cleaning around the house, playing piano and keeping the peace between her sisters. She is sweet, but very frail (you know the type from most Romantic era novels, but that’s a matter for a different article). I think many people have said that Beth is too saintly to be likeable, and perhaps she is. But she’s also genuinely sweet and seriously debilitated by her timidity, which makes her more relatable.

The eldest sister is Meg. She’s beautiful and smart and quite vain. At sixteen years old she’s romantic, aching to join older and richer girls in their dances and flirting. Unfortunately she has to see what money can buy everyday, as she is gouverness to the children of a very wealthy family. Meg is prone to complaining and lecturing her siblings in a futile attempt to make them behave, but also determined and hopeful.

Finally, there’s Jo, fifteen years old and modelled on Louisa Alcott’s own childhood memories of herself. Jo is a bookworm and a writer, curious and outspoken. She can be harsh: sometimes deliberately mean but mostly accidentally rude through poor social skills. She is continually described as a tomboy (“…examining the heels of her shoes in a gentlemanly manner…”?) which she is, in the context of the 1860’s, although a funny boy she would make.

I imagine many people would be bored to death by the simple storylines and moralistic asides, but not me. Especially not teenage-me. I was (still am) not very aware of how the world works, and how you’re supposed to behave. I desperately tried to be a good girl, a devout girl. In this book I found the comfort and direction that weren’t to be had elsewhere and, more importantly: the appreciation of kindness and honesty above all else.

This brings us to the currently much-discussed gender roles. Obviously we are talking about a time before First Wave Feminism, with markedly different social directives and values than our own. But let us gently put aside the notion that this book prescribes women how to behave ladylike, and ponder the possibilities of thinking about womens’ rights and femininity this story opens up. The female characters have distinctive personalities, brains and emotions. They are encouraged to talk about their feelings, to develop their views and to demand respect from men and women alike. Although men and women have clearly differentiated tasks in the book, they are valued equally for their efforts. This message of mutual respect and appreciation is still relevant today, because too often it is not heeded. Nowadays we additionally demand education and control over our fates and bodies, something Jo would emphatically applaud. Louisa May Alcott herself never married and was an abolitionist and feminist.

Now we have the profound part covered: this is also an entertaining book. The sisters act out Jo’s plays with homemade props and admirable seriousness, Amy gets harrassed by a parrot, Meg courted by several young gentlemen and not-so-gentle men. There is comedy, there is drama, there is romance, there are rich neighbours and a friendly Frenchwoman. You will encounter phrases like ‘alas, alas!’, ‘niminy-piminy chits’, ‘what ho!’ and ‘don’t give me wine again, it makes me act so!’. Appealing, isn’t it?

All in all I can heartily recommend this book and its sequels, of wich it has three. If this plea in favour of Little Women doesn’t have you convinced, may I remind you of the episode of Friends wherein Joey is challenged by Rachel to read this book and he loves it? You can’t argue with that endorsement. Go and read it!

Gilmore Award for family love and strong women doing their thing

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston, 1868/1869)

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Jo Robin

A very easy death (Une mort très douce) by Simone de Beauvoir

Before writing any review, I usually browse through Goodreads, just to see what others thought of this book. It struck me that many people were surprised by the title of this book: ‘A very easy death’. People wondered how this death, as described in the book, was easy. Personally, I then think you’ve missed the point completely. To me the title ‘A very easy death’, should be interpreted as a question, or even a cynical remark. Death, after all, is never easy.

First off, this is not a novel, nor a philosophical essay. In this book Simone de Beauvoir describes her mother’s illness: cancer. More precisely, she describes her mother’s last days and the process of dying. But the process of letting go of a loved one and of grieving is most acutely described, as De Beauvoir almost analytically recounts her own thoughts. This book is a 30-day account of a once strong mother, now falling apart under the pain and suffering. Her mother now even fears death, though never asking for a priest. And her daughter, Simone de Beauvoir, struggles with the ambivalent feelings towards her mother. When her mother actually dies, it’s a relief to all.

This book hit me on so many emotional levels. In other reviews I read that people thought this should be a compulsory read for anyone who’s ever lost a relative to cancer. I don’t think so: this book will hit you like a ton of bricks. I’ve had my share of loss and this was the first book that actually helped me. Yes, I cried and cried and cried. But I cried because this was so relatable. It was by far the most honest account of a deathbed I’ve ever read. It’s raw and painful and pure. Analytical even, but by no means cold. I wouldn’t say this should be compulsory, but this is a book that will make you feel like someone understands. There are no black or white issues here; just like death, everything is in the grey area.

Simone de Beauvoir doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. Is there a right way of dying, for example? Apparently there is, or so we think. Is there a right way of taking care of someone? She herself comes across as cold-hearted, but she isn’t. Everyone has their own way of grieving. I remember death brought a lot of stigma’s and taboos with it, about the way the family is supposed to behave. Simone de Beauvoir breaks through all of them. Everything you’ve been ashamed of thinking during the process, she states out loud. Shame is irrelevant when something like the death of a parent tears your world apart. Or so it should be…

Simone, as the author and a character in this book as well, really spoke to me. She is so very different from her sister, just in the way they deal with their mother’s illness. Apparently she and her mother have drifted apart a bit, but now that she is dying, she is forced to rethink her relationship with her mother. She has distanced herself from her highly religious mother, but she thought of her mother as superwoman in a way: strong, unbeatable. One part really stood out for me, where Simone describes her mother’s body: How she adored it as a child, how it became awkward for her to look at as an adolescent and how this body, now, in her illness, to her is both repulsive and holy. When a child sees a parent fall apart, they start doubting everything they are themselves. And what can you do about it? Let it happen. Let the feelings and thoughts, those you’ve stashed away for so long, just come.

Lastly, I can’t write a review without mentioning and praising Simone de Beauvoir’s style of writing. A bit complex: but I read this book in Dutch the first time, after that a few times in French, the original language, and now I’m writing this review in English. A lot gets lost in translation though. If you can, read it in French. De Beauvoir has a poetic way of writing about the most morbid of subjects. As I mentioned before, but I can’t stress this enough: she is honest, she is raw, she is analytical, but never unfeeling. It’s literally like looking inside her head. At times she approaches a situation in a philosophical manner. At other times she describes her emotions, her ambivalent feeling towards anything really and her illogical thoughts. Overall, everything was written beautifully and fluidly, like you are right there with her, sitting next to her mother’s bed at the hospital.

Why then the title: a very easy death? The woman dies in relative comfort. She was a lady of considerable means and people are taking care of her. Both her daughters fight throughout the book to keep her suffering to a minimum. So when she’s gone, the nurse calls it an easy death.
But here’s the thing: it wasn’t. Her mother is in almost constant excruciating pain and her daughters fight, but can’t do much about it. Neither can the doctors. Her mother was described as a strong woman, full of fight, but she can’t handle the pain and, most of all, the loss of dignity. A few things were very clear to me after finishing this book:
There is no such thing as a right way of taking care of someone who is dying.
There is no such thing as a right way of mourning.
There is no such thing as a right way of dying, even.
Death is never easy, death is always a shock, and death is never natural.

I don’t like quoting in reviews, but this probably sums the book up for me: The honesty, the beautiful French language and the painful accuracy.
‘Tous les hommes sont mortels: mais pour chaque homme sa mort est un accident et, même s’il la connaît et y consent, une violence indue’
(‘All people are mortal; but for everyone death is an accident and, even if one recognizes it and consents to it, an undue violence.’)

Lily award: for all those who’ve loved and lost

Simone de Beauvoir, une mort très douce (Paris, 1964)

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Thura Nightingale

Guards! Guards! (Discworld #8, Ankh-Morpork City Watch #1) by Terry Pratchett

I can recommend this book using only one word: DRAGONS!

Right, now that’s done I will get into the book. First I have to say that I am a huge fan of Discworld and everything Terry Pratchett. This means that this review will not only focus on ‘Guards! Guards!’, but I will also talk about the series in general.

Guards! Guards! is the eighth book in the Discworld series and the first in the city watch series. This sounds a bit confusing, but all the Discworld books, 40 in total, are set on a fantasy world, called the Discworld, which is carried by four elephants who stand on a turtle swimming through space. The books are divided in sub-series because there are recurring characters such as Death, the Witches and the city watch who are the main characters in this book.

This is the first book of the ‘Ankh-Morpork city watch series’ and at the beginning it shows them as a dysfunctional police corps with a drunk, Samuel Vimes, as its captain. There are two other police officers, named Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs, who are not much better. Very soon they are joined by Carrot, a human who thinks he is a dwarf because he is raised by them. Carrot has a very literal sense of justice in the way that he tends to follow the rule book by the letter. During this book through the presence of Carrot the watch slowly evolves into something resembling a functional police corps with as their first job: investigating the suspicious murders and to prevent the dragon from eating a virgin.

This does not sound as a terribly original plot for a fantasy novel, but that seemingly cliché setting is exactly what Pratchett uses to turn this novel into something incredibly funny and new. For example at the start of the story a murder finds place in an alley by very hot fire. The only proof that there was a murder is a scorched piece of wall. Captain Vimes beliefs it might have been a dragon, but nobody beliefs him because in this world dragons are silly and more likely to accidentally kill themselves, by exploding through disruptive bowel movements, than to kill anyone else. However, soon it turns out that the murderer was in fact a dragon, and to be exact a dragon of the more ‘mythical’ variant complete with a love for gold and burning things. The dragon is summoned by a secret organization in order to be ‘slayed’ by a hero of their choosing who consequently will become king according to an ancient prophecy.

This contrast between the silly dragons, which are a normal presence in the Discworld, and the ‘mythical’ regular dragon we know from traditional fantasy in which nobody initially believed in the book, is exemplary of Pratchett’s style and the way he uses well-known fantasy themes to create something fun again.

Another characteristic of his writing style is that Pratchett loves to take things from our world and adjusts it for the Discworld setting. For example Carrot uses a dwarfish battle cry when he charges towards the palace guards to arrest them which goes like: ‘deedahdeedahdeedah’.

Often you find in ‘funny’ books that the story is second-rate, because the author is too busy being funny, but that is not the case in this book. That is actually the thing that made me a fan of the author: beneath all the fun and silliness in his books, Pratchett also manages to tell a nice story about what it means to be a hero, are people capable of being decent and how to defeat a dragon residing in your city. And in the end I can safely admit that a truly unexpected hero will rise to save the day.

The one thing in this book that I did not like was the way he described Sybil. She is a big and sensible woman and her whole personality and humour surrounding her was based on the fact that she is a big and sensible woman. This was funny the first or second time he made that joke, but throughout the book that remained the only defining characteristic of Lady Sybil. To me this was a cheap for of humour and did not give Lady Sybil the depth of character she could have had, and also gains in the later books. The humour style of Pratchett is probably the main thing that divides the world between ‘those who love Terry Pratchett and those who do not’. It is very absurd and British in a way and depends a lot on wordplay, silly situations and breaking expectations. This is something you see a lot in the British sketch shows such as ‘a bit of Fry and Laurie’ and ‘Monthy Python’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’, so if you like those you are probably good with these books.

I am going to wrap up this review now, but first I want to leave a little note about Captain Vimes because I love him. He is the ultimate bad-boy crush of the whole series in my opinion. He is best described as the dark, cynical guy who is always grumpy, but with a heart somewhere hidden under his leathery face. He is a flawed character you can not help but love, who most of all has a deep distrust against himself not necessary shared by the rest of the world. If you cross him I doubt you can run fast enough and once he has decided something is not right, you can be sure he won’t stop fighting until things are put right.

Grumpy old bastard award for having a cynical protagonist who is eternally lovable

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett (London 1990)

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Bella G. Bear

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I enjoy a good crime or adventure novel as much as the next girl, but Brooklyn is something else completely and I loved it. A book to be engrossed in, it is not driven by events but rather by atmosphere. It tells the story of a young woman who grows to be her own person, in a narrative that must have repeated itself time and time again: an Irish girl emigrating to America.

In early 1950’s Enniscorthy, County Wexford (where author Colm Tóibín was born in 1955) jobs are hard to come by and girls from the poorer families have to rely on luck to make a good match, and marry into a better future. Eilis Lacey’s three brothers have already left their home town for jobs in England, after their father died, leaving their sisters to care for their mother. They live mostly on the salary of Eilis’ sister Rose, who is beautiful and sociable, thirty years old and unmarried. She has a job while Eilis doesn’t, and decides with their mother that out of the two of them, Eilis is going to be the one that escapes from the small Irish town.

A contact, job and lodgings are arranged in America. A third class ticket for the transatlantic liner is purchased. Goodbyes are said, without drama, and Eilis departs for a faraway continent full of indistinct promises. As you can imagine, seasickness hits hard and homesickness hits harder, but life gets better when Eilis starts an evening course in bookkeeping and meets a young Italian man at the parish dance (in that order). She builds a life for herself, makes New York almost her home, until bad news reaches her from Ireland and her new life is uprooted by her old one. It suffices to say that Eilis’ identity is bound to both Enniscorthy and Brooklyn and the ocean between the places must break some hearts, most notably her own.

The story, written in simple, descriptive prose, follows Eilis very closely. Places and especially people are seen through her eyes and judged according to her estimations. From the quiet dunes of Curracloe to the bustling beach of Coney Island, the young woman stays even-minded but keeps to herself, making dialogue in this book scarce. The story is told through Eilis’ actions and thoughts. Thus it surprised me that, near the conclusion, some distance was taken from the main character. We still read about what she does, but seem to be shut out of her mind, watching her instead from a few metres away. When she is forced to make a decision that, one way or another, will dramatically shape her life, I’d have liked to have better understanding of her feelings on the situation. After all, it is not surprising that she chooses the path she does, given her character that is so clearly established throughout the book. But maybe that’s the thing: emotions don’t have much to do with her decision at this point (though love does). No benevolent priest asks her what makes her happy, no self-sacrificing mother tells her to follow her heart.

One could easily come to the conclusion that Eilis is a passive character, waiting for others to make decisions for her. This thought crossed my mind several times and is perhaps partly true, but then of course I am a 21st century Dutchwoman and very used to making my own decisions. Eilis is bright, strong and open-minded and keeps herself remarkably upright in communities and a family with rigid expectations and tight connections. More than once she defies those expectations with stunning disregard for the consequences, like when she has her boyfriend in her room overnight (middle-aged landladies know everything, of course). When people around her deem her timid, she speaks her mind. When everybody is talking – like when the warehouse she works at starts selling dark brown stockings to cater to people of colour – she holds her tongue and does her job. Her sense of duty is not exactly a ‘modern’ virtue, but a powerful one nevertheless.

Ellis Island Award for homesick immigrants seeking a better life in the United States of America

Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (New York 2009)

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Jo Robin