John Mitchell, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration, is the guardian and last resident of Ellis Island in 1954. In this novel, Mitchell looks back over 45 years as gatekeeper to America and its promise of a better life. Winner of the 2015 European Union Prize for Literature.
It is a poignant tale of reminiscence, as well as a subtle commentary on current issues ... The book is a master study in emotion sans wordiness. Josse’s selection of the medium of journal writing for her anguished storyteller allows him to express these 'deeply troubling' memories in a safe space as they bubble up at the end of his Ellis tenure ... There’s subtle wit at play here, too ... Mitchell’s viewpoint is particularly interesting since it is that of an author from the other side of the Atlantic who chose to focus not on the immigrants themselves but rather on a character observing the passing tide of humanity ... a meditation on memory, but also a timely narrative on an unending condition.
The harsh realities of immigration are filtered through a man’s experiences in Gaëlle Josse’s novel, The Last Days of Ellis Island ... Ellis Island is as much a character as any of the people in the book. It is home to John, safe and familiar. But to the immigrants who pass through it on their way to Manhattan, it is a frightening, unpredictable gauntlet. John relays both perspectives with tender details ... The Last Days of Ellis Island is an absorbing novel in which beloved dreams are fast to shatter.
Gaëlle Josse’s intimate novel, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature and skillfully translated by Natasha Lehrer, is a powerful reflection on exile, immigration, and one’s sense of home ... [the protagonist] gives us a complex—and often painful—insight into the bleak conditions and harsh poverty that have driven people to seek out a new home, while also reflecting upon his own career and the people he has worked with, culminating in a very personal reflection on choice, regret, and what makes life meaningful ... What continues to fascinate, however, is the narrator’s continued choice to remain on Ellis Island, markedly contrasting with the forced detention of its inmates ... In this way, the novel is deeply psychological and moves beyond the wider context of the period to reveal the entrapment that can result from a certain way of living—with fears, with regret ... Josse masterfully creates a detailed world from what has been excluded ... complex and conflicted, beautifully capable of capturing simultaneously the varied spectrums of courage, suffering, and hope.