“Hey, Ms. L, are you going to see Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?” my student asked. This is a much asked question as all of my students, family, and friends know how much how much I LOVE Jane Austen’s P&P. Not as well known is how much I do not like zombies. It is a trend that I wish would finally die already. Along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and all the others.
“I just want stories of ordinary people dealing with ordinary life,” I replied at the end of our conversation.
My wish was granted in Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story about Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small town in Ireland in the 1950’s to seek better opportunities in Brooklyn. What it lacks in the brain-eating undead or the repartee of Elizabeth and Darcy, it makes up in quiet reflection as Eilis navigates her new life, customs, and people as she finds both love and herself. Like her ocean voyage from Ireland to the States, her path to adulthood is fraught with undercurrents that threaten to keep her off-balance. Toibin centers the novel on the daily details of Eilis’s life and her weighing of each new experience for what it means and determining what kind of life she wishes to have. She wrestles with her choices, their consequences and effects on others.
My Goodreads list reminded me that I have read other novels recently about ordinary people: Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You and Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and it made me wonder why Brooklyn resonated with me so much more. Both novels connect to Toibin’s theme of life and how to live it. Me Before You is an immensely readable novel about Lou Clark, a character similar to Eilis in that she is used to living a small life but is thrust into one greater as she begins working for Will Traynor, a quadriplegic. Will makes Lou question what she want out of life as he himself has decided what he wants from his. Of course, romance ensues. Such stories can easily be made saccharine and sentimental, but Moyes keeps the reality centered in the daily routine of caring for a quadriplegic and the physical struggles quadriplegics face. Nothing comes easily for Lou as she makes many of the assumptions about quadriplegics the reader would make.
Nothing comes easily for the characters in Little Bee either. The main character, Little Bee, escapes to England from the war in Nigeria and searches for the only people she knows there, a couple who she met on a beach years before. Little Bee’s arrival changes the couple’s life forever, especially for Sarah whose purpose in life has gone astray by her previous choices and consequences. Chris Cleave can write beautiful prose, but it seemed like he was trying very hard to be profound and show that the affects of war on children is an issue. It may have also been the fact that I read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and had watched Beasts of No Nation, unflinching and immediate accounts of child soldiers in African wars, right before I read Little Bee. The cards were stacked against him.
So what is it about Brooklyn that separates it from other novels about ordinary people? It is, I figured, about ordinary events. Eilis doesn’t have her life changed by a quadriplegic or by war; she immigrates to America. While many of us have not moved from one country to another, many of us have moved to areas vastly different from where we’re from. We have had to learn new ways of doing things, meet new people and determine them to be friend or foe, experience different weather patterns, figure out how to fit in in ways that are authentic to us, and suffer from homesickness. If we return to the place we called home, we see it with new eyes and have to ask ourselves if it is really home anymore. Does it reflect the kind of life we want to live? Are its values our values? At some point we have to come face to face with ourselves, that we are not the same person who moved away. We had to stand on our own two feet and prove ourselves and come to terms with life and how to live it on our own. In the end we learn how to make our own lives a little less ordinary.