It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora have come together to tend to Helen's brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan's two friends, the six of them are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is a deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn an untimely death. In spare, luminous prose, Colm Tóibín explores the nature of love and the complex emotions inside a family at war with itself. Hailed as "a genuine work of art" (Chicago Tribune), this is a novel about the capacity of stories to heal the deepest wounds.
Toibin's simple, luminous prose captures the discomfort and estrangement between the family members. Helen's voice is at once sad, angry and contemplative as current events bring up memories she has worked hard to forget. After years of estrangement, her brother's impending death brings them back together and forces them to deal with the past.
Toibin's slowly evolving novel looks at the fragility of family relationships and the desire to return "home" when we are most vulnerable. Lighthouses are commonly symbolic as beacons of safety or, in dreams, as beacons of truth - and so it is no surprise that The Blackwater Lightship is about both finding a safe haven and uncovering the truth.
This novel is melancholy and moody, but in the end I felt a sense of satisfaction and hope; the feeling that even in the face of death, healing and redemption are possible.
This is a deceptively easy read. Toibin's prose is sparse and clear and has a lyrical beauty which suits the story and its atmosphere beautifully but which doesn't overwhelm the relationships between his characters or intrude upon their self-explorations and coming to terms with each other.
Worst of all, the main character, Helen, is one of those 'sensitive modern woman'-people who I am now beginning to recognize as a character archetype I hadn't known about before I started reading all of this contemporary fiction. She's one of those successful ladies, a leader in the workplace, who also has a gorgeous little family and a perfect life, but whose inner metal space is shot through with poorly-explained self-doubts and neuroses. We see very few of her thoughts, particularly when she's in company. She could do with being a bit more unique. But Toibin is relying on his readers to say "oh, I know people like that," and fill in the blanks for themselves. But because most of the books I read are not about sensitive modern women, I don't have the literary background to fill these details in for myself, and the archetype coes across to me as just what it is-- an irritating stereotype. I find these characters highly annoying. Give us some people with character, for crying out loud! I'm sick of sad broken silent ladies. I'm sick of books about painfully normal 30-year-old ladies, basically. If she had some wit to her, some kind of insight, it would be a joy to read about her, but she has none, and she's depressing. Male writers make their modern female heroes so god-damned boring and typical these days, and I have no idea why.
I have no idea whether Toibin's written anything more interesting than this, but this is pretty dull, and I wouldn't waste my time on it.
"Colm Toíbín's rich new novel is a portrait of three generations of strong, independent women, sorting through the love and resentments that bind them. As Helen helps her mother and grandmother care for her dying brother in a remote, crumbling house by the sea, she confronts her own strengths and vulnerabilities. The Blackwater Lightship is written with tenderness, precision, and remarkable insight. It is a deeply moving novel and ultimately, a hopeful one." -- Stephen McCauley, author of The Man of the House
I'd have to say I agree with this review. I was most frustrated with Lily, the mother, as I read the book. I could not understand how she could be so self-centered and manipulative, and still profess love for her children. I think I came to understand it a little, but, like Helen, I would have had a hard time with forgiveness.
The story was beautifully written. And I do think hopeful at the end. But there is much pain along the way.
I'll look for more of Toíbín's work based on the strength of this novel.
The gay people and their relationships seemed to be appropriately dealt with, and reflecting of the degree of actual and feared social rejection that I would have expected would have been present at the time.
There are some rather predictable elements to this book (wherever two or three are gathered together, they shall recite their coming-out stories...) but on the whole, the idea of an AIDS novel told from the point of view of the straight suburban sister works pretty well, and allows Toíbín quite some scope to freshen up a genre that had - thankfully - almost outlived its raison d'être by the time he wrote this.
Basically, six adults hang around a cottage for a few days, constantly splitting off to have one-on-one conversations with each other about the others, and about the past. Helen resents her mother who resents her own mother, and they all talk and think about it endlessly. Maybe these ruminations on what to do when you don't like or emotionally trust your family would feel more poignant or important if I identified with them more. As it was, it was all just really boring. Helen would walk along the shore, think about how cold the water looked, how strong and enduring the cliffs looked, and then come to some minor realization about her feelings for her mother. "I resented her for not being around when my father died," she realizes wonderingly. Rinse, repeat. Thrilling stuff.
My boredom with the complete lack of plot or conflict might have been alleviated if the characters read more believably. But alas, they're written, particularly Declan, Lily, and Dora, with broad strokes mixed with minutia. By the end of the book I knew that Declan liked self-service restaurants as a child, disliked carrots, and feared escalators, but I still had no idea what he did for a living, how he'd made the friends he did, or even his hobbies. It felt like his sole purpose in the story was to suffer and force Helen and their mother to have uncomfortable emotional moments together. He never felt like a person in his own right.
Although I felt Tóibín relied too heavily on the sea and the lighthouse as metaphors, without doing any heavy lifting of his own, some of the writing is lovely. But some is just crap. An example: She put the car into gear and drove it slowly to the barrier. 'You need fifty pence. Do you have a fifty-pence piece?' she asked her mother.
Her mother searched through her bag and found a purse with loose change. She handed Helen a fifty-pence piece and Helen opened the window and put it in the slot. The barrier lifted.
'We should have gone to the other car park,' Helen said. 'You don't have to pay there.'
I assume he's trying to say something about the mundane details of survival persisting despite looming tragedy, but dear god is it boring to read.
The ending is the strongest part of this novel. There are no heavy handed morals and no awe-inspiring epiphanies. Tóibín presents readers with a possibility, crafting the narrative starkly and with lasting impact. It's definitely worth reading, if only to recognise some elements within yourself which might be reflected in these three women and need some attention.
Three generations of women from the same family - Helen, a young married woman, her mother Lily and granny Dora - after decades of dissent come to an uneasy truce generally by avoiding each other whenever they can. Suddenly they are forced together in the grandmother's house in order to nurse Helen's brother, Declan who is dying from Aids. Two of Declan's friends, also gay, are there to help give assistance. None of the women were previously aware that Declan was even ill. However, this is in no means an Irish gay novel it is more about tolerance, acceptance and how unresolved issues can affect families making them disjointed. In the background, as the participants de-camp to the coast of Wexford to a cliff top house whose neighbouring dwellings have succumbed to the force of the sea we are painted a picture of the decaying Ireland outside of the metropolises.
I found the female characters in particular believable and you can see in Helen, a mother of two young boys, a woman trying to reconcile what she regards as the failings in her own upbringing in the relationship that she wants to engender with her own sons yet to do this she must omit her own husband from the proceedings. There are also some pretty raw emotions on show at times however, IMHO there was something lacking in it all.
As the relationship between the three women improved so Declan's condition worsened but perhaps the truth is that the antipathy between the characters had gone on for far too long to be resolved. As they confess their perceived causes for this friction I never truly felt that any them really meant it rather it was just talk to try and placate Declan. I wasn't expecting some happy ending at the end but perhaps something more than you got. On the whole I found this an OK read but nothing more than that.
Personal feelings aside, the atmosphere of the damp house by the crumbling cliff in Wexford is also perfect for the story, and I loved the imagery of the lighthouse and the 'Blackwater Lightship' as told by Lily. Probably not recommended for readers who need a plot to follow or action to keep them going, but I would definitely encourage anyone who reads for characters and the beauty of a story well told to dedicate an afternoon to this short but bittersweet study of a family in turmoil.
After being shocked by the news of Declan’s illness, Helen goes to stay at her grandmother’s house on the coast for a while, where she and her mother look after her sick brother, and it’s in the house that all the family tensions and buried dramas come to the surface. Two friends of Declan’s, Larry and Paul, also end up in the house. They know much more about Declan’s adult life than his family do, which is the source of more tension and conflict.
At first I didn’t feel involved with this book as the writing seemed too flat and prosaic, but after everyone had arrived at Dora’s house and the drama resulting from the characters being confined together started to play out, I felt much more interested and the novel became more emotional and gripping. I think this book has two separate threads to it, which intertwine in the family history. One is about being gay in Ireland in the 1990s and the need that some of the characters have to keep their sexuality hidden from their families, the story of how they ended up breaking away from their repressive backgrounds and finding a new life. Larry and Paul end up telling some of their stories to Helen and Dora. Among the older generation, there is a lot of prejudice against them and against homosexuality in general. I think the novel is also more widely about traditional and modern Irish life and how they co-exist.
The other thread is about Helen’s relationship with her mother, the grudges she holds against her for the way Lily behaved after her husband (Helen’s father) died, the period when Helen, as a young child, became independent and suppressed her own vulnerability for good. The novel really captured the complicated relationship between the two and the way in which Helen partly desires a reconciliation and partly fears it, as she worries it will undermine her independent life in the city with her husband and draw her back into the web of guilt and duty that her mother and grandmother have woven. The grandmother, Dora, is a vivid, brutally honest and sometimes shocking character who I’m not sure I’d like to meet in real life but found quite entertaining on the page. I liked how the novel didn’t suggest in some cheesily heartwarming way that by the end all the family relationships have become perfect, but it did give an impression that Lily and Helen could somehow be involved in each other’s lives again, in a careful and tentative way.
Although I enjoyed this book, it didn’t have the same impact on me as Brooklyn (which was written ten years later). I think that Colm Toibin’s writing seemed much more intense, unusual and moving in the later novel. However I still liked this book a lot.