Book: The Blackwater Lightship

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The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel

Author: Colm Tóibín
Publisher: Scribner

A beautifully written, deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn a tragic, untimely death—from the author Nick Hornby called “one of the most promising novelists writing in the English language.”

It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Dora have come together, after a decade of estrangement, to tend to Helen’s beloved brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. Under the crumbling roof of Dora’s old house in Ireland, Declans’ two friends join the women as each waits for the end. All six of them, from different generations and with different beliefs are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other.

In spare, luminous prose, Toibin explores the nature of love and the complex emotion inside an unhappy family. The Blackwater Lightship is a novel about morals and manners, and the clashes of culture and personality. But most of all, it is a novel about stories, and their incomparable capacity to heal the deepest wounds.


In the opening pages of The Blackwater Lightship, a stranger drives up to Helen O’Doherty’s Dublin house to tell her that her brother Declan is in the hospital and needs to see her. At his request, she joins him at the creepy seaside house of their grandmother—where, as children, they awaited news of their dying father. What’s more, they’re not the only guests. Paul and Larry, friends of Declan who have known about his HIV diagnosis far longer than his family, are the next to arrive. And then comes Helen’s estranged mother Lily, whom she hasn’t seen in years. Still angry over the emotional abandonment she suffered during her youth, Helen had refused even to invite Lily to her wedding. Now she must come to terms not only with the imminent death of her beloved brother but also with her mother and grandmother—all at once.

Colm Tóibín (The Story of the Night) delivers this unsentimental account of a troubled family in spare but suggestive language. He does allow his characters a few high-spirited remarks and the occasional outburst. Otherwise, though, he keeps his tone even, allowing for the perfect integration of a light, unforced symbolism. For Lily, broken hopes and dreams are bound up with the Blackwater Lightship, one of two lighthouses that once stood in the Irish Sea near Ballyconnigar. As a child, she believed that these would always be there:

Tuskar was a man and the Blackwater Lightship was a woman and they were both sending signals to each other and to other lighthouses, like mating calls. He was forceful and strong and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen.

For Helen, on the other hand, it was the house itself that prompted her deepest, happiest fantasies. But now Lily has sold the property and shattered Helen’s dream that “it would be her refuge, and that her mother, despite everything, would be there for her and would take her in and shelter her and protect her. She had never entertained this thought before; now, she knew that it was irrational and groundless, but nonetheless…she knew that it was real and it explained everything.” What Declan has done by drawing them all together at Granny’s house is to enact this potent, poignant fantasy. Whether it has the power to reconstruct his family is another matter, but in any case, The Blackwater Lightship remains a gripping narrative, deftly delivered by a master storyteller. —Regina Marler

Set in Ireland in the 1990s, the The Blackwater Lightship tells the story of the Devereux family. Helen doesn’t get on with her mother Lily, and Lily doesn’t get on with her mother Dora. Three generations of women, tetchy with recriminations and memory, are forced together when they discover that Helen’s younger brother, Declan, is dying from an AIDS-related illness: “It was like a dark shadow in a dream, and then it became real and sharp.”

This novel is an intense examination of Colm Toibin’s signature themes: death, loss, illness and morality. However, if the themes are a continuance from his previous books, the style is a distinct departure from the lyrical prose of The Story of the Night and The Heather Blazing. In The Blackwater Lightship Toibin strips his style down to spare sentences, and what is said is bleaker: “It was clear to her now that it did not matter whether there were people or not—the world would go on. Imaginings and resonances and pains and small longings, they meant nothing against the hardness of the sea.” It is almost as if he is writing us and himself, as the novelist, out of the picture. The familiar poetry of landscape: “the sudden rise in the road and then the first view of the sea glinting in the slanted summer light”, is all that is left.

There is not much plot, the book concentrates on the gradual unfolding of talk between the Devereuxs, and two friends of Declan’s, who have fine lines of catty commentary. Dora asks: “Is there a need to rake over everything?” But words, even bitter ones, are shaky constants, when everything else is crumbling. This puts a lot of pressure on the prose; when it works well it’s charged with suppressed emotion, strangely lulling in its determination to be quiet and ordinary. But sometimes its simplicity makes the book a little static, threatening to becalm the reader. The Blackwater Lightship is a book about the frailty of human experiences, in the face of indifferent nature: “soon they would only be a memory, and that too would fade with time.” Toibin deals with the tricky balance between hopefulness and hopelessness with elegant economy, and very few stumbles. —Eithne Farry

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The Ties That Bind

Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s spare, insightful novels have won him a wide readership both at home and abroad. Although his novels address gay themes—his The Story of the Night is on the Lambda list of the 100 best gay novels of all time—his work neatly transcends such genre pigeonholing. Short-listed for last year’s Booker Prize, Tóibín’s latest novel is The Blackwater Lightship. On the surface, it is the story of a man dying of AIDS who makes the decision to reveal his homosexuality and his disease to his family and to seek their help. But what makes it such a powerful piece of fiction is the way that the theme of homosexuality—and, specifically, the ravages of AIDS—serves as a metaphor for a pernicious condition that was destroying the man’s family well before his own troubles become known to them.

In the opening pages of the novel, we meet the protagonist, Helen, who appears to be happily married with two small sons. For a brief period, we witness the calm routines of her life: tending to her children’s nightmares, throwing a dinner party with her husband, taking care of her duties as a schoolteacher and administrator. But it isn’t long before she receives a visit from a mysterious man named Paul, who is there to tell her that her brother Declan is dying of AIDS. The rest of this book is an intense and unrelenting survey of Helen’s journey into the world of her brother’s sickness, as she accompanies him to their grandmother’s house on a hill over the sea.

Once Helen and Declan, along with their mother, arrive and settle in, it becomes clear that the emergency of Declan’s disease is bringing together a family that has been torn apart by mistrust and resentment. Helen bitterly hates both her mother and her grandmother, and we learn that she didn’t even invite them to her wedding or inform them of the birth of her children. At every turn, each character seems to have a web of reasons to resent the others; there is little hope that they will ever be untangled. At a few junctures, as Helen nears reconciliation with her mother, she simply shudders and hurries along to her next task in the sick room.

The theme of unhappy families is, of course, well covered in literature—and recent years have offered quite a few books about AIDS and its impact on the lives of its victims and their loved ones. But the ease with which Tóibín makes the surface story of a misunderstood man dying of a misunderstood disease stand in for the surrounding family breakdown is nothing short of virtuosic. We soon come to see that Helen, her mother, and her mother in turn are cold, distant women. And, in offering a cast of basically unsympathetic lead characters, Tóibín shows us, through flashbacks and painfully direct and telling interactions, how these distances might have come to be created. It becomes impossible to condemn any one woman: Each has been so marked by loss that it would be heartless to hold her accountable for her actions.

In his exact and efficient prose, Tóibín is reminiscent of Jane Austen and Henry James for his ability to reveal, with sometimes brutal directness, the inevitable patterns of human interaction and the misery they can engender. His technique at times is so simple as to be nearly invisible: He often, for example, describes one character watching other characters interact from a distance that is great enough that she cannot hear what they are saying, but close enough that she can get an impression of what sort of exchange it is. In this way, we experience the pain of Helen’s family in a cumulative fashion that mimics the actual reality of such a scenario. By the novel’s end, a brief word or two can speak volumes about the explosive memories and resentments lurking just below the surface.

The Blackwater Lightship is one of those rare novels that exist on two completely different levels. While some readers will be drawn to its moving portrait of Declan’s coming to terms with his fatal illness; others will appreciate its illumination—in brief but constant flashes, like the lighthouse of its title—of Helen and Declan’s complex and tortured family ties. But it is the connection between these themes that gives the novel its power: The metaphor Tóibín develops between a physical disease that cannot be stopped and a psychological one that is just as ruthless is a rare literary accomplishment, confirming the great promise of his earlier work. —Jake Kreilkamp

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