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A Return to Brooklyn’s Eilis and a Look at Lives Unlived

Colm Tóibín, image courtesy of Amazon

For readers who fell in love with Eilis Lacey’s journey in Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn,” the arrival of its sequel, “Long Island,” was a cause for celebration. Published in May, the novel picks up twenty years after Eilis settled in America, offering a poignant exploration of life’s choices, unspoken desires, and the enduring pull of one’s homeland.

A Familiar Face, a New Chapter

We find Eilis, now Eilis Fiorello, married to the kind-hearted Tony and raising two teenage children in a close-knit Italian-American community on Long Island. The Fiorello family lives in a cul-de-sac, surrounded by Tony’s extended relatives. Life is comfortable, predictable, yet a quiet undercurrent of yearning simmers beneath the surface.

The catalyst for change arrives in the form of a knock on the door. A man with an Irish accent delivers life-altering news, propelling Eilis on a journey back to Ireland. This return is not just geographical; it’s a return to a past she thought she’d left behind.

The Ireland Eilis Left Behind

While “Brooklyn” captured the immigrant experience with its depiction of Eilis’s struggles and triumphs in a new land, “Long Island” delves into the world she left behind. We meet her aging mother, a woman grappling with loneliness and the weight of unspoken truths. Eilis reconnects with old friends, their lives taking unexpected turns that mirror her own.

Through these interactions, Tóibín paints a nuanced portrait of a small Irish town. The characters grapple with societal expectations, the limitations placed on women, and the yearning for a life less ordinary. We see the Ireland of Eilis’s youth – a place of both beauty and stifling convention.

The Unlived Life and the Choices Made

As Eilis confronts her past, questions about the path not taken begin to surface. What if she hadn’t left Ireland? Would she be happier? More fulfilled? These internal dialogues highlight the universal human experience of wondering about the alternate paths life could have taken.

Tóibín excels at portraying the emotional complexities of his characters. Eilis’s internal conflict is palpable. Her love for Tony and her children is undeniable, yet a part of her yearns for something more, something she can’t quite define.

The Power of Silence and Unspoken Emotions

A hallmark of Tóibín’s writing is his masterful use of silence. In “Long Island,” the spaces between words are as telling as the dialogue itself. Eilis’s unspoken desires, her mother’s regrets, and the unspoken bonds between characters create a powerful emotional undercurrent that draws the reader deeper into the story.

More Than Just a Sequel

“Long Island” stands on its own as a powerful exploration of human connection, loss, and the choices that shape our lives. While familiarity with “Brooklyn” enriches the experience, it’s not a prerequisite for appreciating the depth and complexity of this novel.

To fully appreciate “Long Island,” a return trip to its predecessor, “Brooklyn,” is helpful. Published in 2009, “Brooklyn” introduced us to Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman yearning for opportunity. Set in the 1950s, the novel chronicles her difficult decision to emigrate to New York City. Eilis faces the loneliness and challenges of starting anew, but also finds solace in a supportive boarding house community and eventually, love with Tony, a charming Italian-American plumber. “Brooklyn” ends with Eilis building a new life for herself, pregnant with Tony’s child. Yet, beneath the surface lies a lingering curiosity about the life she left behind in Ireland, particularly the future she might have had with a young man named Jim. This unresolved tension sets the stage for “Long Island,” where Eilis grapples with the choices she made and the life paths not taken.

Themes of Belonging and Identity

The question of belonging is central to the novel. Eilis grapples with feeling like an outsider in both America and Ireland. Her children, raised in a tight-knit Italian community, also question their place in the world. Tóibín explores the ways in which family, cultural heritage, and personal desires all contribute to our sense of self.

For authors, this highlights the importance of creating multifaceted characters whose struggles with identity resonate universally. By portraying Eilis’s feelings of being an outsider in both America and Ireland, as well as her children’s cultural dilemmas, writers can craft narratives that speak to the heart of human experience, making their stories more relatable and engaging to a diverse readership. This approach not only enriches character development but also ensures that the themes are intricately woven into the plot, enhancing the emotional depth and authenticity of the story.

Books that tackle themes of belonging and identity offer a unique opportunity to connect with readers on a personal level. Such narratives often appeal to a wide audience, including those who have experienced cultural displacement or identity crises. By recognizing and promoting stories that explore these universal themes, books can tap into a market of readers seeking representation and understanding in literature. Moreover, these books can spark meaningful conversations about cultural heritage, family dynamics, and personal identity, potentially increasing their impact and reach. Thus, investing in and promoting works that thoughtfully examine belonging and identity can contribute to the broader discourse on these vital human experiences.

A Look at Aging and Mortality

The return to Ireland coincides with Eilis’s mother’s twilight years. As her mother confronts her own mortality, Eilis grapples with the passage of time and the weight of family history. This portrayal of aging parents adds another layer of emotional complexity to the narrative.

From this kind of book, readers can glean profound insights into the universal experiences of aging and mortality, recognizing the deep emotional impact these themes have on both individuals and their families. The narrative highlights the inevitability of aging and the poignant reality of witnessing a loved one’s decline, encouraging readers to reflect on their own relationships and the passage of time. By exploring the weight of family history and the enduring bonds between generations, the story offers a poignant reminder of the importance of cherishing moments with loved ones and acknowledging the profound legacies they leave behind

A Masterful Exploration of the Human Condition

With “Long Island,” Colm Tóibín masterfully explores the complexities of human relationships, the weight of the past, and the choices that define our lives. The novel is a must-read for fans of “Brooklyn” and anyone seeking an examination of love, loss, and the lasting human spirit.


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