Eilis, younger daughter of a widowed mother, grows up in a small town in 1950s Dublin. Despitre her intellignece, she can only get a part time job serving in a shop. Father Flood, a priest visiting his home town from Brooklyn, NY, arranges for her to go to New York and for a room and a job to be waiting for her. She realises that Rose, her elder sister, has sacrificed her own future to look after the mother, what with the three boys working in England and all. Eilis proceeds to fall in love in New York; then she is called back to Ireland.
At times this novel read like a documentary. Every last detail is lovingly recorded, from brother Jack's handwriting to seasickness on the Atlantic crossing to how to get through immigration to the nervous Jewish law professor. I found this rather over the top. I understand that the modern dictum is that the author should know every last detail about the characters down to what they carry in their pockets but I am not sure how much it needs to be shared: Shakespeare's stage directions are minimal compared with those in eg Pinter's The Homecoming or Osborne's Look Back in Anger; does this not then leave more for the audience to fill in. Certainly there were an awful lot of details that didn't add to the plot and I didn't think you needed that level of detail to make me know the character of the protagonist.
There were delightful moments: I loved the split in the boarding house between the prim and proper young ladies and those who wanted a good time; and Father Flood was reassuringly practical and empathetic. But the plot as a whole didn't really grip me until the conflict began between the mother who seemed to be manipulating Eilis to force her to stay in Ireland and Eilis missing her fella. This wasn't until the last quarter so the book was a slow burn.
Eilis had a very pedestrian inner life as well. Every dilemma she faced was spelt out clearly. This actually was a brilliant feature of the book because it made you follow her uncertainties. Did she love the boy or not? Even at the end you're not exactly sure but isn't that the way we all are? We weigh up our options (perhaps a little less cold-bloodedly than Eilis) based on our perceptions (which are perhaps a little less clear than Eilis) and we come to a conclusion which we will never know is right or wrong and which we might in any case change later on down the line. This was a tremendous strength of the book.
A carefully constructed jewel.
May 2016; 252 pages
- Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57