cover image The Last Days of Ellis Island

The Last Days of Ellis Island

Gaëlle Josse, trans. from the French by Natasha Lehrer. World Editions, $15.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-64286-071-9

French novelist Josse’s melancholy English-language debut looks at the last few days in 1954 before Ellis Island was officially shuttered as a port of entry into the U.S. The novel is structured as diary entries by fictional Ellis Island commissioner John Mitchell, who muses on his history as a gatekeeper, declaring, “I am the captain of a phantom ship that has been abandoned to its ghosts.” Two of these ghosts are the women who most affected his life. Mitchell’s wife, Liz, was a nurse on the island until her death in 1920 of typhus, brought in with immigrants on the ship Germania. Three years later, Mitchell falls deliriously in love with Nella Casarini, who arrives on the Cincinnati with her mentally disabled brother, Paolo, and then, days later, disappears from Mitchell’s life after Paolo commits suicide. Mitchell also recalls others who passed through the port, and remembers Augustus Sherman, a fellow official and amateur photographer, and one of only a few historical figures in the story. Lehrer’s translation is both limpid and lyrical, as Mitchell sees himself being put out to pasture. (“He must leave the pack, like an old animal moving away to die, while the herd continues on without him.”) Josse’s powerful work finds the human heart within a career bureaucrat. (Nov.)