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Long Island by Colm Tóibín review – happy ever after?
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Long Island by Colm Tóibín review – happy ever after?

Asked recently why he had chosen to write a sequel to his much-loved 2009 novel, Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín said, “The answer is why not? The other answer is that there are very good reasons not. I mean, leave it alone – why interfere with people’s imaginations about what happens to the characters? Also, and this is not true for Hilary Mantel or The Godfather, but in general sequels tend to be pale.”

Not this one. While Tóibín’s palette may be rather lighter on vermilion than Puzo’s – or indeed Mantel’s – Long Island is anything but pale. As for the characters, it is pure pleasure to be back in their absorbingly complex company.

Twenty years have passed since Eilis sailed for America for the second time, leaving local Enniscorthy barman Jim Farrell to return to Brooklyn and Tony Fiorello, the plumber to whom she was already secretly married. Since then she has not once gone back to Ireland. She and Tony live with their two teenage children on Long Island, in a suburban cul-de-sac built for the family by the Fiorello brothers. It is a stiflingly close-knit arrangement. Eilis’s in-laws can “almost see in through her windows”. Tony and his brothers work together. Their wives and children are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Every Sunday the whole clan gathers for long noisy lunches. For Eilis, now in her 40s and the only one not of Italian extraction, the lack of privacy is sometimes unendurable. It is only slowly that she has carved a kind of peace for herself within it.

That peace is smashed to pieces in the opening pages of Long Island when a stranger, an Irish customer of Tony’s, turns up on her doorstep. Tony’s plumbing, he informs her, has proved “too good”. His wife is expecting Tony’s baby. Since the Irishman has no intention of raising a “plumber’s brat”, when the child is born, he will leave it on their doorstep. Recognising his obduracy – “She had known men like this in Ireland” – Eilis has no doubt that he means what he says. As the baby’s birth approaches and the question of its future remains unresolved, she seizes on her mother’s 80th birthday as a pretext to return to Ireland for the summer with her children.

Her decision, the mirror image of her flight in Brooklyn, leads her directly back towards the road not taken. In Enniscorthy little has changed. Gentle, serious Jim Farrell still runs the pub and has never married. Eilis’s old friend Nancy, five years widowed, manages the chip shop. The town is as cramped by convention as it always was. It is Eilis with her transatlantic gloss who is different, marked out by her clothes, her hair, the unpardonable extravagance of her shiny rental car. Her children don their Irish heritage like a local costume, exuberantly, but Eilis, whose Irishness in Long Island has always set her apart, has become an outsider.

Tóibín is the consummate cartographer of the private self, summoning with restrained acuity (and a delicious streak of sly humour) the thoughts his characters struggle to find words for, those parts of themselves that remain resolutely out of their reach. Eilis has grown more self‑possessed since Brooklyn, more direct in the American style, coolly capable of negotiating with her boss and standing up to her mother-in-law, but the habit of silence is hardwired in her. Back in her mother’s house she is as disoriented by longing as she was 20 years before, but in middle age it is a longing that must somehow accommodate the life she has already made, a life that no longer begins and ends with the self. It is no accident that, while the triangular story of Brooklyn was told exclusively from Eilis’s point of view, Long Island shares the close third-person narrative between Eilis, Jim and Nancy, drawing us deeply into the hearts of all three as they move inexorably towards a reckoning. There can be no happy ever after, not when happiness can be won only at the cost of another.

After its explosive opening, Long Island unfolds in a series of small events: a shopping trip to Dublin, a walk on a beach, a wedding. People gossip. Enniscorthy is not a place where secrets can be kept. Much of the novel’s tension comes from the excruciating certainty that the steady accretion of small deceptions can only continue for so long, that sooner or later the delicate balance will be broken, and yet, when it comes, the breaking strikes like lightning, unexpected and shattering. This deceptively quiet novel is the work of a writer at the height of his considerable powers, a story of ordinary lives that contains multitudes. In general, it is true, sequels are pale things, but the exceptions to the rule are glorious, contriving both to satisfy on their own terms and to deepen the reader’s relationship with the book that came before. Long Island can safely count itself among their number.

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Source: theguardian.com