Long Island
by Colm Tóibín

Like everyone who has read Brooklyn, I was pleased to read more about the American adventures of Eilis Lacey in Colm Tóibín’s Long Island,. But when, at the end of the  first part of the new novel, Eilis left Long Island for Ireland — for the duration — and bumped into her oldest friend in Enniscorthy, I fancy I had a better sense than most what she would be up against.

For that reason, I am not going to bother with a coy “review” of Long Island, but proceed straight to an appreciation of the book, an appraisal that is littered with spoilers. I counsel those who plan to read Long Island but have not got round to doing so to continue no further than the following paragraph, and then immediately to read for themselves the story discussed therein.

In 2006, three years before Brooklyn, Tóibín published a collection of stories, Mothers and Sons. The third story in the book, “The Name of the Game,” is a favorite that I’ve read several times. It is a heroic epic set in a domestic frame, with predicament leading to ordeal leading to triumph. Nancy Sheridan, the widow of a grocer, inherits a mass of debts and no clear prospects for increasing the value of her only asset, the grocer’s shop. She is persuaded by one of her suppliers to branch out in a striking, controversial direction, and she makes a success of following his advice by persistently, energetically, even somewhat underhandedly devoting herself to the project. At the end, having made the dream of fiscal solvency come true, she is poised for a move that will surprise everybody.

In Brooklyn, we meet Nancy as Eilis Lacey’s best friend. She’s still Nancy Byrne, and her romance with George Sheridan is just beginning. Readers of Brooklyn will not have forgotten that, when Eilis makes her fateful return to Enniscorthy at the end of the novel, she dallies a bit with George Sheridan’s best friend, Jim Farrell, but of course this fantasy comes to nothing, and Eilis returns to her husband in Brooklyn.

The Jim Farrell of Long Island, Tóibín’s new book about Enniscorthy, is a bachelor; he has never married. But if I had forgotten that the Jim Farrell of “The Name of the Game” had a wife, Betty — a not incidental character — I reread the story because I did remember how it ended, and it’s immediately clear in Long Island that Nancy’s big move has not, evidently, taken place. But Jim Farrell’s never-married state is the big change. The big change in what, though? In the history of Enniscorthy? Or rather, given that Enniscorthy is a real Wexford town with a real history, a change in Tóibín’s Enniscorthy, which he began populating in 1992 with The Heather Blazing? There is a moment in Long Island that moved me to consider complaining to the author that he doesn’t know his own work very well. In the new book, Nora Webster, the heroine of her own Enniscorthy novel (2014), is said to have sold her beach house to Martin Lacey, one of Eilis’s brothers, when “in fact,” in Nora Webster, she sold it to another brother, Jim. This slip, if that’s what it is, is “saved” when Jim explains his affairs to Eilis. Overall, I was more intrigued than irritated by the alterations.

In 2017, Tóibín published The House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia, Aeschylus’s trilogy about the House of Atreus, which is itself a retelling of very well-known myths. These retellings are not always consistent. Sophocles, for example, produced an Elektra that parallels The Libation Bearers. One version of the Iphigenia story resembles Genesis 22, the Abraham-and-Isaac story: Iphigenia is whisked off in a divine cloud to the island of Taurus before the sacrificial blow is struck. That is an admittedly extreme alteration of the tale, but there are alternate versions of most stories, and of course Tóibín had already, in The Testament of Mary (2012), published a pungently alternative story of Jesus’s mother’s life after his crucifixion.

Long Island reflects Tóibín’s assimilation of this somewhat archaic element of storytelling, which has also inspired a narrative approach new to his fiction. Hitherto, Tóibín’s stories, long or short, have been portraits, each one focused on a single character, even when that  character is recalling the story of another characters, as Lisa remembers her sister Julie in “Famous Blue Raincoat”: although Julie dominates the telling, we never see things from her point of view. In the three novels that I regard as Tóibín’s best — The Heather BlazingBrooklyn, and Nora Webster (I have read each of them at least four times) — the point of view is gripped by the character of whom the story is being told. We are told nothing that is not firmly attached to the perception of Eamon Redmond, Eilis Lacey, and Nora Webster, respectively. The rigor of this attachment, rather than the drama inherent in the characters’ experience, is what makes the books so strong. I find this to be particularly true of Nora Webster, which I wrote about recently. In Long Island, Tóibín firmly sets this rigor aside. There are three points of view, each one belonging to a corner of the story’s love triangle. And although Eilis Lacey’s is one of them, it is, relatively, the faintest. That is probably what led A O Scott to complain, in his Times reviewthat

Long Island is a busier book than its predecessors, more exciting in some ways but in others less satisfying. There is more plot — more incidents and coincidences, more twists and revelations — and less Eilis.

In his conversation with Sarah Lyall, also in the Times, Colm Tóibín declares that Long Island is “not a sequel” to Brooklyn. At first hearing, this sounds utterly perverse, because almost every major character in the new novel also makes an appearance in the earlier one. But I think that the author’s claim can be taken seriously. If Tóibín has revisited Enniscorthy and its people, that is because Enniscorthy is his Troy or his Thebes, a place that contains many stories, and perhaps many kinds of stories, about the same figures. (Think of Faulker’s Yoknapatawpha County.) Brooklyn is about a local girl’s experience of emigration to America. During her brief homecoming at the end of that book, Eilis slips back into the ways of her youth; only her clothes and an ineffable air of confidence betray her years abroad. But in her very first Enniscorthy scene in Long Island, a long catch-up with her childhood best friend and soon-to-be unknown rival, Nancy Byrne Sheridan, now the impresario of the chip shop in the Market Square, Eilis betrays the extent to which her persona has been altered by decades in Lindenhurst, the town on Long Island in which she and her husband and her husband’s family settled in the late Fifties. The moment passes very quickly, but Tóibín captures Nancy’s surprise.

“How is your mother?” Nancy asked.

“She speaks her mind much more than before. It takes getting used to. Maybe it’s a good sign. I don’t know.”

In asking after Mrs Lacey, Nancy had thought Eilis would say that her mother was as well as could be expected for a woman of eighty, or some sort of customary answer. She was surprised by the tone of exasperation in her reply.

It is impossible to imagine Nora Webster, or the young Eilis for that matter, replying to Nancy’s polite question with such candor. It is difficult to imagine them even thinking such a thing through to the point of clear articulation. Nora and the younger Eilis take getting used to and putting up with other people for granted. Having lived so long among Americans, however — for most of whom it is very important not to be difficult to get along with — Eilis is conscious of, and irritated by, the effort that her mother’s stubborn contrariness requires.

The new novel consists of seven parts, and only the first, as I have mentioned, takes place on Long Island. The remaining six parts, set in Enniscorthy, are each divided into three chapters, and each of these chapters looks out from the point of view of Nancy Sheridan, Eilis Lacey, or Jim Farrell, invariably in that order. By beginning each part with Nancy and ending it with Jim, Tóibín diminishes the dramatic punch that the Eilis chapters might have. Another factor in the relative effacement of Brooklyn‘s heroine is the intrusion of Mrs Lacey and of Eilis’s two children, Rosella and Larry, who come to join her a few weeks after her own arrival. It became clear to me on the second reading that Mrs Lacey’s delphic mulishness is intended as punishment for the dreadful humiliation to which Eilis subjected her mother decades earlier; May Lacey (we learn her Christian name in Nora Webster) was second to none in confidently expecting that, back then, Eilis’s marriage to Jim would be the next big event in Enniscorthy. The mother is inexorable, and even her impishness does not prevent the reader from coming near to hating her. The children, for the usual reasons, are distractions from Eilis’s growing preoccupation with her old beau, particularly the younger child, high-school aged Larry, openly inquisitive about everything as only an American can be.

We learn early that Nancy and Jim have been conducting something between an affair and a secret marriage for some time, and that they plan to announce their plans to wed (in Rome) soon after the impending nuptials of Nancy’s daughter, Miriam. That is the state of play before Eilis’s arrival. There is a strong sense of affectionate faute de mieux about this relationship, and it is doubtless her awareness of the lack of passion that prompts Nancy to decide not to mention Jim in her first meeting with Eilis. It must be local discretion that prevents anyone from telling Jim that Eilis is in town; her rented car, an unimaginable extravagance in local terms, seems to be the talk of the town. Inevitably, though, Eilis and Jim come together, and Jim’s complacence with Nancy suffers a shock of which Nancy herself remains unaware, despite creeping suspicions, right up to the end of the penultimate part. It is only at the finale that Eilis learns that, if he follows his heart (and hers), he will be dumping her old friend, someone to whom he has made serious, if informal, commitments.

The suspense of waiting to see which woman will be the first to discover that she is involved in a love triangle drives the novel, and Tóibín infuses this suspense with a strange dread. As I have suggested, Nancy and Jim are instrumental lovers: their fondness floats in a medium of expected benefits. Jim finds that, despite years of bachelorhood, he can’t wait to relish the uxorious comfort of waking up every morning next to a warm wife, while, for her part, Nancy foresees that Jim will be a great help with managing her big problem, which is not the chip shop but her son Gerard, an idler who wants to enjoy the profits of the business without putting in his share of hours. Gerard will listen to Jim, Nancy believes, because Jim is not only a respected business owner but a man. Gerard fancies himself as a man of business, too, and he craves the good opinion of his presumed peers. In short, Jim and Nancy intend to make full use of one another.

Eilis Lacey, ordinarily a very practical woman, is not at present driven by utilitarian concerns. Indeed, her very presence in Enniscorthy constitutes a flight from them. She has run away from a situation at home in Lindenhurst that she finds intolerable. Her husband, Tony, has, as if living out the cliché about repairmen who deal with housewives while their husbands are at work, has impregnated a client’s wife, and the customer, quite sure that the child is not his, intends to dump the baby at the Fiorellos’ doorstep. The Fiorello family is prepared to deal with this development by adopting the baby. By “Fiorello family,” however, I mean Tony’s parents and brothers, who live in the enclave that three of the four Fiorello sons built for themselves and their parents, true to the plans sketched out in Brooklyn. Eilis, as the only non-Italian in the enclave, has come to feel alienated from this invasive clan, and the threatened arrival of Tony’s love child pushes her to extremes: she will not countenance its coming to live anywhere in the enclave under any circumstances. In order to avoid the child’s birth, she makes an escape to Enniscorthy, nominally to participate in the celebration of her mother’s eightieth birthday.

This solves nothing, of course. The child is duly born and, as planned by everyone but Eilis, taken in by Tony’s mother, Francesca — also Eilis’s next-door neighbor. But the old hometown flame has been rekindled: Eilis imagines a new future. She will return to Long Island — she is not going to abandon her children, who are in their late teeens. But she will live with Jim, who, besotted, tells her that he will give up everything to be with her. Eilis’ is clear-headed enough to see that this dream of love presents some very practical problems that ought to be worked out before Jim shows up in New York. They are not insurmountable problems by any means, especially after Jack, Eilis’s older brother and a wealthy businessman who lives in Birmingham, promises to underwrite his sister’s freedom. Nevertheless, some arrangements must be made, She pleads for time.

By this point, the initial suspense has subsided and flowed into a new one: what will Nancy do when she finds out about Jim and Eilis? Jim has not been nearly as discreet as he ought to have been, certainly if he planned to mislead the eagle-eyed Nancy. But then Jim is no longer capable of serious discretion. Even as he is assuring Eilis that he cannot live without her, he is offering Gerard very practical advice on the understanding that he will soon be Gerard’s stepfather; he is also appraising the site where Nancy wants to build a cottage, some distance out of the town.

It would be easy to dismiss Jim as a two-timer, but in fact he is simply in over his head. Readers of Brooklyn will recall that he would not give Eilis the time of day before she left Enniscorthy the first time; it is her American glamour, frequently remarked on, that has bedazzled him, not once but twice. Nancy has not been without suspicions that this might happen; again and again, she declines to mention the presence of either old friend to the other. At her daughter’s wedding — which marks the turning point in Eilis’s perception of Jim — Nancy watches them both as much as the festivities allow, but it takes a couple of Jim’s unexplained absences from town to alert her to real danger. And she, alone of the three, is adept at making plans on the spot. That is how she salvaged her husband’s business, and that is how she claims Jim Farrell.

I never doubted that she would. My only worry was whether she would claim Jim dead or alive. Honor is a major factor in Long Island. There is the Italian sense of honor that obliges the Fiorellos to take in Tony’s stray. It is an honor of the family. Eilis is governed by a different sense of honor, and the nature of that honor is a concern of Tóibín’s new book. We might call it the honor of the provincial Irish town.  If the key to Mediterranean honor is the strength required to uphold the family name by avenging any and all wrongs, the honor of Irish towns — towns, everywhere, I suppose, but more pointedly Irish ones because of the very rapid transformation of the land from predominantly peasant to predominantly bourgeois — depends on the determination of each inhabitant to prevent the town (which I see as an active sort of Greek chorus) from being obliged, by its own sense of honor, to drive the apparently wicked from its precincts (something that towns today seem no longer inclined or free to do). Like all honor, it is entirely a matter of appearances, but, again like all honor, it is impressed on everyone from earliest childhood, and is somehow closer than second nature. This automatic quality is what explains Eilis’s almost completely unconsidered rejection of Tony’s baby. Just as it is normal for the Fiorellos to adopt the child if its mother won’t have it, it is normal for Eilis, a daughter of Enniscorthy, to insist on a life in which she can plausibly deny its existence.

The winner of the love triangle that begins to develop the moment Jim Farrell realizes that Eilis Lacey is really back in town, then, will be the one with the best plan for making something happen while also keeping the fuss to a minimum. As I have suggested, though, the best plan will be conceived “instinctively.” Once she begins to suspect Eilis and Jim of acting somewhat unaccountably, Nancy proceeds blindly but delicately, and with immense determination. Unlike Jim, she is not intoxicated by the unconscious élan of the visitor from America. Unlike that visitor, Nancy knows that whatever happens must pass muster with the town.

It is for this reason that I would appoint Nancy Sheridan the heroine of Long Island, especially for any reader already familiar with “The Name of the Game.” In a way, Eilis is not actually in the running for the leading role; she is, rather, the goddess. She descends on Enniscorthy, wreaks havoc in the heart of an old beau, and returns to the heavens at the end in more or less the condition of her arrival. A catalyst, in short. We know that Eilis is not bound for any heaven; back in Lindenhurst, she will be all too mortal, and perhaps even a lesser sort of mortal. I think it’s clear that her happiness will depend on her ability to forget Enniscorthy and its honor once and for all.