This book creeps up on you. It is a masterpiece of self-control and characters who, at times, show too much self-control for the sake of protecting or preserving relationships. But, to borrow a phrase (in honor of Chinua Achebe), “things fall apart” – lives, marriages, countries, one man’s notion of justice, and land. The image of a man, having lost the front of his house to coastal erosion, sitting in his living room and reading the paper is haunting. And Toibin knows just how to handle it. He does not comment on it or turn it into some sociological point; instead, he allows us (and the protagonist) to observe it. Then we all move on. Though we can move on. Though “[t]he County Council had put more huge boulders just below the cliff in an effort to ward off the sea” (203), Toibin makes it clear that there is no warding off the sea. And what does that idea have to do with the book’s final image?
There is an essential sadness in this book – about doing the best we can and that not being enough and how that can have an impact on all of those around us. This sadness does not rely on one scene or one character. Toibin is too subtle for that. This is a story that manages to be both gentle and devastating.