Book review: Long Island, by Colm Tóibín

This sequel to Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn is sometimes painful, often amusing but always compelling, writes Allan Massie

Long Island, a sequel 20 years on to Colm Tóibín’s most popular novel Brooklyn, begins strikingly with a challenge that is both practical and moral. Eilis, heroine (I suppose) in both novels, opens the door to an Irishman who tells her that her husband Tony has got his wife pregnant and that he proposes to bring the baby to her doorstep. From the first she is clear it is no concern of hers. Her children are 18 and 16. Tony is ashamed and nervous of her. She is on good terms but not wholly at ease with Tony’s close-knit Italian family, a little wary of her mother-in-law Francesca, who announces she will see to the baby’s adoption. But what does that mean? In this difficult position Eilis will return to Ireland for the first time in two decades. It will be her mother’s 80th birthday – good excuse – and the children will follow her when school ends for the summer to meet their Irish grandmother. But what will she decide when she is there? And will she return?

On her last visit to Ireland she was already married to Tony, though no one, not even her mother, knew this then, and she fell in love – or sort-of – with Jim Farrell, a friend of her best friend Nancy. Then she went back to the States and people learned that she had a husband. Jim has never married and keeps a pub. Nancy is now a widow and owns a fish and chip business across the road from Jim’s bar. They have just got engaged but are keeping this secret until after Nancy’s daughter’s wedding in the summer. What will happen when Eilis and Jim meet again?

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The country is still Catholic Ireland, not yet the Celtic Tiger, a country where young men and women still look to meet in dance halls. That’s to say it’s the country Tóibín, born in 1955, grew up in, and, if he came, as we know from his essays, to deplore much that it was then, he re-creates it in fiction with tender, even loving care. That old Church-dominated country is now novelists’ territory, remembered with a mixture of disapproval, even resentment and yet also affection by, for instance, John Banville as well as Tóibín. We know the same sort of nostalgia, at once sour and loving, here in Scotland. You can hear its echo McIlvanney and James Robertson, indeed in many places where a distinct native culture has been displaced by modernity. Tóibín re-creates the last decades of Catholic Ireland tenderly – and is equally alert to the persistence of traditional Catholic and family-oriented culture in the habits and outlook of Eilis’s in-laws.

Colm Tóibín PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty ImagesColm Tóibín PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Colm Tóibín PIC: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

For me it is this recovery of an older Ireland that is the chief charm of this always engaging novel. It also of course offers a picture of love gone wrong, love thwarted, love betrayed. Eilis’s resentment of Tony’s infidelity is natural, likewise her resentment of her mother-in-law’s apparent willingness to come to terms with it. Of course, their circumstances are different. For Eilis, news of Tony’s illegitimate child is an insult; for her mother-in-law it’s another grandchild, another member of the family.

Eilis remains the central character in the novel; it’s essentially her story. I confess to finding her unsympathetic – admirable, certainly, in her determination to make her own life and be in control of it, the determination that took her to America in the first place. However, she is capable also of duplicity and of careless self-assertion, something her mother, a fine, admirable but comic character makes clear to her when, returning after so long an absence, she seems to be ready to take over her life.

One of the delights of this novel is the vividness with which Tóibín realizes his characters, the one failure to my mind being Jim. It’s easy to understand why Nancy is eager to marry him, a solid, decent, reliable man; not quite so easy to understand why Eilis calls on him or seems ready to revive what they once had, or seemed to have.

Still this is an admirable, intelligent and very enjoyable novel, compelling, often amusing, sometimes painful. The ending remains just open – certainly open enough for Tóibín to give us, someday, the next turn of the tale.

Long Island, by Colm Tóibín, Picador, £20

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