To Long Island – 26 May 2024

Authors who know what to leave unwritten, narrators who place their confidence in implication and characters who leave truths unspoken are the order of the day.

Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck, which this week won the International Booker Prize, is an exemplar. The story is of an affair between a young woman and a much older married man in 1980s East Berlin. In the first section, the couple never part without looking back at one another. In the second, he seeks to control which way she looks at all times.

The grand scale of their love is offered in the subtle details, turning points in their relationship might be seen in the flick of a cigarette and speech is painful, one sentence unfinished, the next raked over. The reader fills in the extent to which their story becomes that of the GDR. There is urgent power in the space on the page and the space between the characters.

The much-anticipated Long Island by Colm Tóibín was published on Thursday. Before I opened the apricot cover to gaze at the duck egg blue endpapers, I realised that I must re-read its predecessor. Brooklyn follows Eilis Lacey as she is compelled to leave family and familiarity in Enniscorthy for opportunity in New York.

The writing performs that elusive trick of seeming effortless. You know that there is nothing simple about crafting a story so that each character feels real and nuanced, so that places materialise as clearly as the outfits, smells and touch apparent, so that dialogue rings true and minute twists are felt deep in your stomach. You know that each word did not emerge in perfect order without extraneous companions. And yet… you can believe they did.

As in Kairos, so much of this is because of what is left unwritten. Tóibín need not spend pages introducing Eilis and her sister, Rose, for a sentence showing Eilis silently watching Rose put on lipstick is enough.

The book is marked by Eilis’ silences. When she does answer questions, it is rarely with a direct answer. We know now where she will be twenty years later, that we will meet her on Long Island. But who will she be? I began reading the sequel this morning and want to savour that discovery.

This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud begins with a self-conscious assessment of the writer. ‘I tell stories. Of course, really I want to save lives. Or simply: I want to save life.’ The novel opens in Algeria as news reaches that Paris has fallen to the Nazis. It is a sweeping historical and political story of a family, based on Messud’s own, torn apart by war. That could be the set up for a heavy and tangled epic. But Messud and her narrator each know how quiet moments can effect the biggest change, unnoticed, and how refined the thread must be that aims to preserve life in story.

In Shadow Reader, Imtiaz Dharker’s poems sometimes twitch upon that thread, sometimes take it up and weave it: she shows the power of words to erase as well as illuminate. The reader’s shadow falls across the page while rose gardens, cranes and prayers lift off. ‘You have,’ as she writes, ‘been welcomed into books that smell like ancient trees… and as the pages turn, your breath quickens with something you always knew in your blood like remembered faith.’

What Is Mine by José Henrique Bortoluci is an account of conversations with his father which becomes a recent history of Brazil, his father having worked as a truck driver and crossed the country constantly while contributing to vast infrastructure projects. As in Kairos, man and nation combine and descriptions of what happened open chasms which only indicate their effect. Bortoluci writes, ‘Words are scars, the remnants of our experiences of cutting and sewing up the world, gathering its pieces, tying back together the things that had the temerity to scatter.’

In Strange Bodies, Tom de Freston explores unspeakable loss through artwork. He and his wife long to be parents but suffer through multiple miscarriages; as bodies seem ever more fragile, grief and distance solidify. De Freston turns to paintings to find stories which can offer connection and, through these, offers a profound love letter, art reaching into the spaces where words cannot.

Ralf Webb’s new book Strange Relations also offers a careful look at art and crisis, this time considering masculinity, sexuality and art in the works and lives of Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, John Cheever and James Baldwin. The book is out in July and before then Ralf will be reading here – his poetry collection, Rotten Days in Late Summer, another example of the intense experience a refined word creates.

May your Sunday offer a little silent space and perhaps a trip to Long Island,

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