Long Island 
by Colm Tóibín.
Picador, 287 pp., £20, May, 978 1 0350 2944 0
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Novelists​ don’t usually care for screen adaptations of their work. But the film versions of Atonement, The Remains of the Day and The English Patient do no great disservice to the books. And Colm Tóibín wasn’t unhappy with Nick Hornby’s screenplay for Brooklyn, despite two big changes to the ending. In the novel, when the insidious Enniscorthy shopkeeper Miss Kelly intimates to Eilis that she knows about her secret marriage in the US, Eilis shakes with panic; in the film, taking charge, she proudly tells Miss Kelly her married name (‘Mrs Tony Fiorello’). And whereas the novel ends with her on the train to Wexford, heading for the boat but still thinking about the man she’s been involved with, Jim Farrell, the film concludes with her in Brooklyn in the arms of her husband: ‘This is where your life is,’ she says in a voiceover. Perhaps that ending persuaded Tóibín that the sequel should begin in the US, with Ireland and Jim Farrell safely behind her.

Is Eilis right to have abandoned them? On the face of it, when Long Island opens twenty-odd years later, she’s doing well for herself. She has moved from Brooklyn to Lindenhurst in Long Island, with Tony (a plumber) and their teenage children, Larry and Rosella. Having acted as a bookkeeper for Tony’s family, she’s now working for a local Armenian garage owner as well. Tony’s parents live in the same cul-de-sac, as do his brothers Enzo and Mauro and their families. Everyone knows each other’s business, so much so that when a stranger (Irish, as it happens) turns up to see Eilis with an ultimatum, other members of the family already know what’s going on. The man’s wife is pregnant by Tony, he announces, and when the baby is born he’ll be handing it over to Eilis or leaving it on her doorstep.

Tóibín’s early novels aren’t notable for high drama. They may explore death and grief but it’s the texture of ordinary life that sustains them: card games, house renovations, gossip, waiting for the postman, walking in the drizzle, shopping and drinking. There’s no lack of quotidian substance in Long Island, from men discussing ball games to the use of Windolene to ease a ring onto a finger. But because of the threat posed by ‘the man’ (unnamed until later) the novel begins as explosively as Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, where Michael Henchard puts his wife up for sale. Eilis understands where the man is coming from, as if his belligerence were a tribal norm: ‘She had known men like this in Ireland. Should one of them discover that their wife had been unfaithful and was pregnant as a result, they would not have the baby in the house.’ Her response, as a betrayed wife, is muted and slow-burning; she and Tony continue to share a bed, if not to have sex (a recent resurgence in their sex life, she realises, came at the time he was getting another woman pregnant). There’s just one issue on which she’s adamant: the baby won’t be crossing her threshold, nor will Tony’s mother, Francesca, be raising it next door.

The charm of Brooklyn (2009) was its immigrant story, as Eilis, innocent and friendless but clever and determined, starts a new life over the water. At first she’s homesick (‘She was nobody here’; ‘She belonged somewhere else’). But after meeting Tony she finds her feet. The liberation she feels when she passes her college exams (‘how beautiful everything was … She had never felt like this before … [it] had given her a new freedom’) is reminiscent of Christopher Isherwood in a California diary entry in 1940: ‘I love this country. I love it just because I don’t belong … I feel free here. I’m on my own. My life will be what I make of it.’ All that changes with the death of Eilis’s sister, Rose. Returning to Ireland to pay her respects, she’s reassimilated, which ‘made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy, something she could not match with the time she was spending at home. It made her feel strangely as though she were two people.’

In Long Island she’s still two people. She doesn’t see eye to eye with the Fiorellos. Having argued with her hawkish father-in-law about the Vietnam War a few years earlier – ‘I would not want my son to be sent to fight,’ she tells him, shocking everyone at the table with her assertiveness – she no longer attends their elaborate Sunday lunches. Nor does Frank, Tony’s smart kid brother, an eight-year-old in Brooklyn, now a successful lawyer. She can talk to Frank more easily than to Tony; they would make a good match but for his being gay. As it is, he’s generous enough not just to have promised to sponsor Rosella at university but to give Eilis two thousand dollars towards a trip to Ireland – her first since Rose’s death.

Ostensibly she’s going back for her mother’s eightieth birthday. But, as before, Tony feels threatened and resists the idea, afraid she won’t return – with good reason this time, since she’s unsure whether their marriage is worth saving. It depends on what happens with the baby. To her mother-in-law, ‘the baby will be a member of the family whether we like it or not,’ which means it’s likely she’ll defy Eilis and bring it up. A break in Enniscorthy will give Eilis a chance to think this through – not that the baby or the state of her marriage are matters she’ll discuss with anyone, least of all her mother.

Difficult mothers appear often in Tóibín’s work. Chief among them are mothers who hand their children over to a relative so they can spend time with a dying husband and who then, traumatically, fail to be in touch for weeks on end. Both Nora in Nora Webster (2014) and Lily Devereux in The Blackwater Lightship (1999) fall into that category, as does the mother in the story ‘One Minus One’. Eilis’s mother, though widowed early, hasn’t been unmotherly in that way. But in old age she has turned abrasive, at least with her daughter, who’s made to feel guilty for emigrating twenty years ago and now for buying kitchen items – a fridge, washing machine and cooker – that her mother doesn’t want. Eilis would like the eightieth birthday gathering to be a big family occasion, but her mother isn’t having it (‘Families are often the worst’). The days are hard to fill and her mother’s anti-American jibes wearying. Oppressed, she briefly escapes to her brother Martin’s rundown cottage in Cush.

Even before Brooklyn, Tóibín’s fiction had its share of transatlantic crossings. But the more common to-ing and fro-ing, on a humbler scale, is between Enniscorthy, the busy town where he grew up, and Cush, the tiny coastal settlement a half-hour drive away where he spent childhood summers (he writes about both places in his essay ‘A Guest at the Feast’). Cush is where Eamon Redmond, a judge, retreats every summer in The Heather Blazing (1992); where the Devereux family gather in The Blackwater Lightship as Declan is dying of Aids; where Nora Webster used to spend time with her husband, Maurice, until he died and she was forced to sell up. Cush is a site of freedom and pleasure, where swimmers put on their bathing togs and plunge into the cold sea. It’s also ominous, the eroding cliffs from which houses have fallen a symbol of doom.

In Brooklyn, Cush is where Eilis first registers Jim’s attraction to her and in Long Island, it’s where they meet again. Jim is now running the family pub in Enniscorthy. He lives alone and often thinks of his romance with Eilis. Now she’s back, he wants to know about her life in America and also, more worryingly, to discover if she feels the same way about him as she did that summer. Honesty is a challenge for them both. In Brooklyn the deception was hers: she didn’t tell him she was married. In Long Island it’s his: for a couple of years he’s been seeing an old friend of hers, Nancy Sheridan, and though they’ve kept the relationship a secret and will do so for a few months more, until her daughter’s wedding is out of the way, they plan to get married in Rome the following year.

Eilis and Nancy are rivals for narrative supremacy as well as for Jim: the point of view shifts between them, with a little room made, since it’s a triangle, for him. Nancy made an appearance in Brooklyn, and was the subject of ‘The Name of the Game’, a long story in Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons (2006). There, newly widowed and cash-strapped, she was forced to open a fish and chip shop to make ends meet. In Long Island she still has the shop, which attracts drunk customers late at night and annoys the town’s well-to-do, but she is busily mapping out a quieter life with Jim. She has her eye on a remote piece of land where they can build a bungalow and lures him out to see it.

The two women meet now and then but don’t share confidences: Eilis says nothing about Tony, Nancy nothing about Jim. So much in Long Island goes unsaid. It’s a world in which people speak knowledgeably (and sometimes bitchily) about others but reveal little of themselves. ‘It’s not like you to tell anyone anything,’ Eilis says to Jim. As well as secrets, there are problems of articulation: stutters and stammers, an inability to express feeling. Whatever you say, you say nothing. Or you do as Eilis’s mother does, when she proudly tells her grandchildren that she has returned the kitchen equipment that Eilis bought for her and chosen her own instead – an outright lie.

Tóibín has fun playing Nancy off against Eilis. Nancy is rooted, pragmatic and worried about her weight. Eilis is slim, tanned and (by Enniscorthy standards) expensively dressed. But as a returnee she provokes suspicion: ‘She seemed like a different person. Something had happened to her in America.’ The girl who left was raw and amenable; the middle-aged woman who comes back looks to be at ease with herself. Inwardly, though, she’s in a muddle. The renewed connection with Jim is part of it. He’s mixed up too, drawn to Eilis but ashamed of betraying Nancy: ‘Jim realised that he himself was like one of his own worst customers, someone who knew what he should not do but was driven to do it regardless, no matter how much trouble it would cause.’ We see far more of muddle – of havering and wavering – than we do of sexual passion. How to do the right thing? Who to trust? When to be candid and with whom? There are long passages of introspection studded with question marks.

Since​ Enniscorthy is a small town, where people are more informed than they let on (‘Sure, everyone knows everything’), it’s a test for Tóibín to keep the unfolding narrative credible: is it plausible that Nancy and Eilis wouldn’t find out about each other’s involvement with Jim? But because this trio are emotionally reticent, Tóibín succeeds. The story set up at the outset – a woman forced to consider leaving her unfaithful husband – doesn’t go away altogether but becomes richer, multilayered and unexpected, defying logic yet wholly tenable. As Hardy once put it, ‘Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.’

Hardy is an unlikely comparison for Tóibín, but as in Wessex so in Enniscorthy: coincidences happen, passions ignite and history refuses to be buried. A more obvious connection is with Henry James, about whom Tóibín wrote a great novel, The Master (2004), in which one set-piece has James taken by a gondolier to deposit the clothes of his newly deceased friend, Constance Fenimore Woolson, in the Venetian lagoon. Nancy’s trip to Dublin to be fitted for a dress for her daughter’s wedding is less dramatic but Tóibín gives it five pages all the same. And Eilis is a remodelled Jamesian heroine: smart, self-educated, unsure where she belongs. True, she’s not a sophisticate (in twenty years in the US she hasn’t once stayed in a hotel), but her visit to Ireland, against her husband’s wishes, is reminiscent of Isabel Archer’s in The Portrait of a Lady, when she travels to see the dying Ralph against her husband’s wishes:

‘Was he very bad about your coming?’

‘He made it very hard for me. But I don’t care.’

‘Is it all over, then, between you?’

‘Oh, no; I don’t think anything is over.’

‘Are you going back to him?’ …

‘I don’t know – I can’t tell.’

This is Isabel talking to Ralph, but if Eilis were the confiding sort it could equally well be her. When Jim pushes her for a decision about the future, she can’t help him: ‘There were too many uncertainties. She could not make her mind up now. She would have to tell Jim that she needed more time.’

Among the uncertainties are what she owes her children, who have followed her to Ireland for a summer holiday and to meet their grandmother for the first time. Both still depend on Eilis: Larry is affectionate but impulsive; Rosella will need settling in at university. She has been a good mother to them, one of the few in Tóibín’s work without neglect on their conscience. Eilis’s mother, formerly so caustic, lightens up when they’re around. Rosella is introduced to Enniscorthy townsfolk as a beautiful granddaughter. Larry goes to a hurling match and spends time in the local pubs.

To prepare for their trip, Rosella has read Bernadette Devlin’s The Price of My Soul (1969). Watergate and the Troubles are referenced too, which makes Long Island no less 1970s than Brooklyn is 1950s. But, realist fiction though it is, it’s light on period detail and contemporary politics. Deeper divisions between the Old World and the New matter more: the fact that Eilis’s mother and brother Martin don’t have fridges, for instance, or that the blue dress Eilis wears ‘could not have been bought in Ireland’. Materially, Ireland and North America are worlds apart. But neither Eilis’s mother nor her brother Jack (who offers to buy Eilis a house in the US) is poor. And there are other continuities. Eilis’s community in Lindenhurst is ‘intimate’, even ‘enclosed’ – ‘it’s a neighbourhood,’ like Enniscorthy.

Brooklyn was a breakthrough for Tóibín, bringing him a wider readership (‘Someone actually said to me, “Oh thank God, a book of yours we can finally read,”’ he joked in an interview with the Guardian). After Long Island, any suggestion that Tóibín is indifferent to plot development seems absurd. Yet these two novels aren’t departures. Read them alongside his other fiction and you notice the same places cropping up again and again: Enniscorthy, Cush, Wexford, Tuskar, Blackwater, Ballyconnigar. The same surnames recur too: Lacey, Devereux, Redmond, Webster, Kehoe, Keating, Bolger. And the idiom has the same unshowiness: it’s what Browning called ‘a language fit and fair and simple and sufficient’.

Whatever the virtues of Tóibín’s novels about James and Thomas Mann, it’s on his home turf that he exceeds himself. He may be writing about people who are away from home or who, like Eilis, don’t know where home is. And he wouldn’t quibble with Larkin that ‘Home is so sad.’ But he understands homesickness as well as he does the urge to get away. What Eilis did in Brooklyn still resonates today: record numbers of young Irish people are leaving the country in search of a better life. But what she does in Long Island resonates too: come back for the summer, reconnect with the people she left and wonder what to do next. She’s still only in her forties, with decisions to make and decades of life to go. There may have to be a sequel to the sequel.

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Vol. 46 No. 12 · 20 June 2024

‘Novelists don’t usually care for screen adaptations of their work,’ Blake Morrison claims (LRB, 6 June). They should be so lucky. Films often improve the books on which they’re based. Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho is not generally taken to be better than Hitchcock’s film. Most people don’t know Pierre Boileau’s D’entre les morts, but they do know Vertigo. Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons, even with its butchered ending, is far more memorable than Booth Tarkington’s original. Robert Harris adapted his own novel for Roman Polanski’s masterpiece about the Dreyfus case, An Officer and a Spy. Does anyone think Dreiser’s American Tragedy is a patch on George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun? As for The Zone of Interest … I rest my case.

David Hare
London NW3

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