This plaintive sixth novel from the Booker-nominated Irish author (Mothers and Sons, 2008, etc.) is both akin to his earlier fiction and a somewhat surprising hybrid.
Tóibín’s treatment of the early adulthood of Eilis Lacey, a quiet girl from the town of Enniscorthy who accepts a kindly priest’s sponsorship to work and live in America, is characterized by a scrupulously precise domestic realism reminiscent of the sentimental bestsellers of Fannie Hurst, Edna Ferber and Betty Smith (in her beloved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). But as Eilis both falters and matures abroad, something more interesting takes shape. Tóibín fashions a compelling characterization of a woman caught between two worlds, unsure almost until the novel’s final page where her obligations and affections truly reside. Several deft episodes and set pieces bring Eilis to convincing life: her timid acts of submission, while still living at home, to her extroverted, vibrant older sister Rose; the ordeal of third-class passenger status aboard ship (surely seasickness has never been presented more graphically); her second-class status among postwar Brooklyn’s roiling motley populace, and at the women’s boarding house where she’s virtually a non-person; and the exuberant liberation sparked by her romance with handsome plumber Tony Fiorello, whose colorful family contrasts brashly with Eilis’s own dour and scattered one. Tóibín is adept at suggestive understatement, best displayed in lucid portrayals of cultural interaction and conflict in a fledgling America still defining itself; and notably in a beautiful account of Eilis’s first sexual experience with Tony (whom she’ll soon wed), revealed as the act of a girl who knows she must fully become a woman in order to shoulder the burdens descending on her. And descend they do, as a grievous family loss reshapes Eilis’s future (literally) again and again.
A fine and touching novel, persuasive proof of Tóibín’s ever-increasing skills and range.