It begins with a betrayal | Review of ‘Long Island’ by Colm Tóibín

The much-awaited sequel to ‘Brooklyn’ works marvellously with the Irish novelist ticking all the boxes

Updated - June 28, 2024 10:57 am IST

Published - June 28, 2024 09:45 am IST

Actors Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in the 2015 movie adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel ‘Brooklyn’.

Actors Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in the 2015 movie adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel ‘Brooklyn’.

Sequels can be tricky, because however good the book is, it is always compared to the original. Mention the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe and his debut novel Things Fall Apart has top-of-the-mind recall, not the sequel, No Longer at Ease.

Sometimes, a sequel is written after a long interval, like Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which appeared 34 years after her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). It’s a lovely coincidence, of course, if they work as companion pieces, and in the case of Atwood, it does. Like it also does in Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton novels.

Writers usually do follow-up novels if they know they can access different characters in the original and embellish their stories. Colm Tóibín decided to write Long Island, the sequel to his celebrated novel, Brooklyn, published 15 years ago, when an image came to his mind.

A new novel by a master of contemporary Irish fiction is a gift. The 69-year-old Tóibín, shortlisted for the Booker Prize thrice, has ruled the literary world with his 11 novels, essays, poems and short stories. The sequel to Brooklyn works marvellously because Tóibín ticks all the boxes — it’s a story with upheavals and quiet joys, and new things to say, the characters have been mined further to give them layers of interiority, and the beautiful prose ensures the narrative never sags. And while it’s not imperative to read Brooklyn to appreciate Long Island as it is a great standalone novel, the predecessor completes it.

Author Colm Tóibín

Author Colm Tóibín | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the aftermath

We are not giving away spoilers, because Long Island starts with a big bang and it is this terrifying premise on which the whole story revolves. Eilis Lacey, married to Tony Fiorello for two decades, is seemingly happy in their Long Island home with two children, Rosella and Larry, till an Irishman comes knocking and drops a bombshell. Eilis’s husband, a “very good plumber”, has had an affair with the stranger’s wife; she is pregnant and he threatens to drop off the newborn at the Lacey-Fiorello home.

Actions have consequences, and the rest of the novel traces the aftermath. What will Eilis do? She may have immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s from Ireland, but she is still an outsider in the 1970s, and has built her life around domesticity. She has no peer support group, no one to turn to, unlike her husband Tony who has built a house on a plot where the rest of his family, his two brothers and his parents, also have homes.

Eilis decides to visit Enniscorthy, where her mother lives and is about to celebrate her 80th birthday. This is the town that Tóibín grew up in, and readers will get more atmospheric details of an Irish town of the 70s with its bars, quaint shops and homes without telephones or refrigerators than of the Long Island of the title.

Back to base

Actors Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson in ‘Brooklyn’ (2015).

Actors Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson in ‘Brooklyn’ (2015).

In Brooklyn, Eilis had gone home from New York to be with her mother after her sister Rose passed away suddenly. Tony, the Italian she gave her heart to, in a fit of desperation and certain she would not return, asks her to marry him — and they do, quietly. Back home in Ireland, Eilis keeps the marriage a secret from her mother and friends, and that “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”. She meets an Irishman, Jim Farrell, who will inherit a bar, and thereby hangs many a tale. Soon, “the idea that she would leave all of this — the rooms of the house once more familiar and warm and comforting — and go back to Brooklyn and not return for a long time again frightened her”.

But Eilis does go back, and Long Island picks up the story decades later, with Farrell, now getting a lot of attention, who wishes “he had been with her [Eilis] all the years, but there was nothing could be done about it now”.

Will Eilis and Farrell be together? Tóibín’s eloquent storytelling doesn’t quite include settling things for either Eilis or the other characters. Readers will yearn for a third novel, though Tóibín isn’t really a fan of series writing, unless a compelling image crops up.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

Long Island
Colm Tóibín
Pan Macmillan
₹750
0 / 0
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