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22 May 2024

Colm Tóibín’s genre trouble

The Brooklyn sequel Long Island is a rich tale of secrets and betrayal. Is it more than a romance novel?

By Nicola Sturgeon

Colm Tóibín’s Long Island opens 20 years on from Brooklyn, a novel that ends with Eilis Lacey leaving Ireland for a second time, after a pilgrimage home to mourn her sister. She has chosen to return to America and to Tony Fiorello, the man she is already secretly married to, forsaking in the process the Enniscorthy publican Jim Farrell, who may well be the true love of her life.

Long Island is the story of this journey in reverse. In tone and atmosphere, though, it has a completely different feel to Brooklyn, Tóibín’s 2009 bestseller, which was adapted by Nick Hornby into an award-winning film. If Brooklyn is very much about young Eilis’s voyage of self-discovery – albeit one she was thrust into against her own desires – its sequel is about coming to terms with the compromises and disappointments of later life. Indeed this tension, between the lives we dream of and the realities we settle for, is one of the book’s dominant themes. Tóibín, through his characters, persists with a question that needles away in many a human heart. Must it be this way? Is it too late to reach back and seize the life we once imagined?

We encounter Eilis anew in the 1970s, a woman now in her forties. The traditional gender roles and stereotypes that prevail in her American-Italian family, as well as references to the Vietnam War, anchor the book in time just as firmly as her age does. As the book opens, Eilis is still married to Tony. They have two teenage children, Rosella and Larry, and are living in Lindenhurst, Long Island, in a cul-de-sac of four houses, all occupied by members of the Fiorello family.

She seems ill at ease, unfulfilled. There is a sense of a life smothered by the closeness of her in-laws, and of a perennial struggle to fit in with her surroundings. As an Irish woman in an Italian family living in America, she has always been an outsider. And yet when she returns to Ireland, it is her American identity that sets her apart.

At the heart of the book – though laid bare in the first few pages – is a shocking revelation of marital betrayal. It is from this that the rest of the story flows. However, notwithstanding the sense of pace and anticipation that Tóibín’s tight, spare prose manages to create, it is a weakness of the book that everything that happens afterwards, even the later “plot twist”, is predictable.

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The betrayal propels Eilis back to Ireland and to the renewed temptations of the road not travelled 20 years earlier. Tóibín brings places to life superbly well, and nowhere better than his native rural Ireland. He does this physically, painting vivid pictures – perhaps a movie sequel to Brooklyn beckons too – but also atmospherically. He understands how small-town communities, where it is everyone’s business to know your business, can stifle the soul, and why they then become fertile breeding grounds for fiercely protected and often destructive secrets. What we choose to hide or reveal about ourselves – and the consequences of the choices we make – is perhaps the book’s overriding theme.

In Enniscorthy, to which Eilis returns bearing her own secret anguish, Jim – the man she long ago rejected – is in a relationship, not yet disclosed, with her childhood friend Nancy Sheridan. Jim and Nancy seem genuinely fond of each other, but lurking close to the surface for both of them is an unspoken desire for a lost love, Nancy for her late husband and Jim for Eilis.

In this novel, Eilis is a tough character to like, even to empathise with. Her betrayal by Tony is deep, but she shows little regret for the injury that both he (though we have to assume he remains unaware of it) and Jim suffered at her hands all these years ago. She seems intent on victimhood. The conclusion that she is using Jim – for revenge or to repair her wounded pride – is hard to escape. Jim does invoke sympathy, but it is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that he is prepared to inflict the same heartbreak on Nancy as Eilis visited on him 20 years earlier. Nancy is the most authentic and likeable of the main characters, and the one I found myself rooting for. It is her discovery of the renewed romance between Jim and Eilis, and her panicked reaction to it, that seems destined to trap Jim in a life that part of him yearns to leave.

Some of the minor characters are less well rounded. Eilis’s children, Rosella and Larry, and her mother, Mrs Lacey, are full of potential but not sufficiently developed to make their idiosyncrasies feel authentic. Mrs Lacey’s metamorphosis from a mother simmering with resentment towards her long-absent daughter, and barely able to utter the names of her American grandchildren, to the adoring grandmother who decides to return stateside with her family is not an incredible journey – it is just one that the reader is not properly taken on.

The novel ends on a note of uncertainty. It seems most likely that for Eilis, Jim and Nancy, life will drift back to normal, that the summer of Eilis’s return to Enniscorthy will simply fade to memory. And yet the possibility of a different outcome lingers. Perhaps a trilogy is somewhere in Tóibín’s thoughts.

And maybe it should be. Even though, to my mind, Brooklyn did not need a sequel, it now has one. But it is a source of sadness that reading it made me love Eilis less, not more. I would rather it didn’t end there.

This is a story fizzing with themes as old as the ages, told through the lens of characters who are richly familiar, wrapped in the beautiful, sinewy prose that is one of the hallmarks of Tóibín’s work. However, Long Island prompted questions that I occasionally find lurking in my mind when I read books by authors whose reputations reside in the stratosphere – as Tóibín’s, deservedly, does.

Good though this novel is, would I revere it quite as much as my brain is telling me I should if it had been written by someone less well known and respected? Would it be attracting the same critical acclaim that it is being showered with had it been penned by a different writer? Someone who, perhaps by virtue of being a woman, would see an equally impressive work pigeonholed in the archives of genre fiction? Or might it, instead, be considered a good, satisfying read, and left at that? Unlike Tóibín himself – if his past comments are to be relied upon – I am not dismissing genre fiction. It’s more that I sometimes ponder, and won’t be alone in doing so, the extent to which the characterisation of a novel as a masterpiece of literary fiction is, on occasion, more to do with the identity of its author than the objective quality of the work.

I am not entirely sure what the fair answers to these questions should be, but perhaps the fact that I’m asking them at all tells a story of its own about this book. Long Island deserves to be widely read and admired. I am just not sure that it merits the literary prizes that it will almost certainly be nominated for.

Long Island
Colm Tóibín
Picador, 304pp, £20

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[See also: The 2024 International Booker shortlist reviewed]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024