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Silence and secrets permeate an immigrant enclave in Colm Tóibín's 'Long Island'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Novelist Colm Tóibín has said he always had a sense that he would return to the story of the heroine of his 2009 novel, "Brooklyn." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says she's glad Tóibín followed his instincts. Here's her review of "Long Island," the sequel to "Brooklyn."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The outer boroughs of New York City to Long Island. Such was the exodus route of many mostly white working- and middle-class New Yorkers during the late 1960s and '70s, when the city was perceived to be in decline. So it makes historical sense for Colm Tóibín's sequel to his 2009 best-seller, "Brooklyn," to be called "Long Island." Where else would Tóibín's heroine, Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant who married Italian American plumber Tony Fiorello, be likely to end up? But as anyone who's read "Brooklyn" or seen the 2015 film starring Saoirse Ronan knows, Eilis is a restless soul. The opening shocker on the second page of "Long Island" is that the easygoing Tony, her husband of now 20 years, has been getting restless himself.

Before I go further, a quick word about sequels - I don't usually review them because not everyone has read the first book or seen the movie. But in this case, it would be worth your time to catch up. "Long Island," together with "Brooklyn," is a devastating diptych about a woman in two different seasons of her life thrashing against the constraints of fate. Tóibín, whose novels have animated Greek myths as well as the subtle minds of masters and magicians like Henry James and Thomas Mann, also invest even these routine lives with tragic dignity.

"Long Island" opens in 1976, when a strange man appears at Eilis' door and bluntly announces that Tony has impregnated his wife. The humdrum stasis of Eilis' suburban world shatters, as if Zeus himself had struck the house with a thunderbolt. The man also informs Eilis that when the baby is born, it will be deposited on her doorstep. What ensues for the remainder of Part 1 of this novel is a fraught pantomime of silence and secrets. Eilis and Tony's house stands in a cul-de-sac, where all the other houses are filled with Tony's extended family - his parents, two of his brothers, their wives, and lots of kids. The Fiorello enclave, which Eilis thinks of as the great family net, is as watchful and stifling as the town of Enniscorthy in Ireland, where Eilis grew up. When she learns that she's one of the last family members to find out about Tony's infidelity and that her mother-in-law, who lives next door, has already agreed to adopt the baby, Eilis realizes she has no one to turn to. If she told someone about it, Eilis thinks, then she might know how to feel, what she should do.

She had never confided in her mother, who was, in any case, in Ireland, with no telephone in her house. Her two sisters-in-law, Lena and Clara, were both from Italian families and close to each other, but not to Eilis. Given that the situation at home is unbearable, Eilis decides to visit her 80-year-old mother back in Ireland, a place she hasn't returned to in almost two decades, with good reason. There she'll discover, much as another Long Islander named Jay Gatsby once did, that you can't repeat the past. Tóibín floats with ease between time periods in the space of a sentence, but it's Tóibín's omissions and restraint, the words he doesn't write, that make him such an astute chronicler of this working-class, Catholic, pre-therapeutic world where people never speak directly about anything, especially feelings.

Here's the conclusion of a scene where Eilis and her mother-in-law, Francesca, have been sitting in Eilis' kitchen, having a halting, evasive, non-conversation about the baby. (Reading) Francesca stood and waited for Eilis to stand up to and accompany her out. But Eilis remained seated. Francesca left the room and made her way alone to the front door. Since her mother-in-law was a stickler for form, Eilis knew this studied insult would not be forgotten. It would create a chasm between them that would not be easily bridged, and that made Eilis feel satisfied that something at least had been achieved.

There are no innocents in Tóibín's world. Every character has at least a slim streak of malice in them. Indeed, the bitter pleasure of the Ireland section, which composes the bulk of the novel, lies in witnessing how characters Eilis underestimated years before exact their own long-delayed retribution - silently, of course. Nobody in this world would ever dare say a word.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Long Island" by Colm Tóibín. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Brittney Griner about her imprisonment in Russia and her return to her wife and her WNBA team, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And to read about what's happening behind the scenes on our show and get staff recommendations, subscribe to our free newsletter at whyy.org/freshair.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Susan Nyakundi, and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSYCHOGRASS' "PLEASANT PHEASANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.