The Blackwater Lightship

by Colm Toibin

Paperback, 2001

Call number




Scribner (2001), Edition: 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed, 288 pages


It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Three women, Dora Devereux, her daughter Lily and her grand-daughter Helen, have arrived, after years of strife, at an uneasy peace with each other. They know that in the years ahead it will be necessary for them to keep their distance. Now, however, Declan, Helen's adored brother, is dying and the three of them come together in the grandmother's crumbling old house with two of Declan's friends. All six of them, from different generations and with different beliefs, are forced to listen to, and come to terms with each other.The Blackwater Lightship is a novel about morals and manners, about culture clashes and clashes of personalities, but it is also a novel full of stories, as the characters give an account of themselves, and the others listen, awe struck or deeply amused at things they have never heard before.… (more)

Media reviews

Set in Ireland during the early 1990s, Declan is dying of AIDS. With the help of two gay companions, he leaves the hospital to spend a few days at the seaside home of his grandmother. There, at the crumbling place of his youth, his sister Helen, his mother Lily, and his grandmother Dora gather after a decade of estrangement. The three women had no idea Declan was gay, let alone terminally ill with AIDS. Once they recover from the shock, their primary goal becomes caring for Declan, who had always been the binding force in this dysfunctional family. Like six castaways on a desert island, from different generations and with clashing beliefs and lifestyles, they are forced to face their own dark histories in order to deal with each other to achieve the common goal of keeping Declan alive and comfortable. The Blackwater Lightship is predominately a story of three generations of iron-willed women from a divided family who reunite to help each other face a tragic situation. It is beautifully told in luminous prose, and with all the tenderness and insight that readers have come to expect from this superlative storyteller. Toibin takes the reader deep into the hearts of a family at war with itself in order to explore the nature of love. It is an emotional study of people grappling with the love and resentments that bind them, and ultimately it is a story of hope, showing love (or perhaps tragedy) has the capacity to heal the deepest wounds. This is a tragic and moving journey, not for the faint of heart. It is, however, a destination well worth the effort. It moves slowly for the first half of the book, and then builds in intensity until I couldn’t put it down. It is not simply a wonderful story; it is a literary achievement.

User reviews

LibraryThing member writestuff
Colm Toibin's novel The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Book Prize in 1999. Set on the coast in Ireland near Dublin, the novel centers around Declan, a young homosexual man dying of AIDS whose sister, mother and grandmother come together to care for him. Declan's sister Helen narrates this tale of heartache, loss, redemption and healing.

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.

… (more)
LibraryThing member MelmoththeLost
Intense and claustrophobic, the novel focuses on three generations of women and the bitterness they have harboured for one another over decades. Faced with the impending AIDS death of Declan, the brother of the youngest of them, they are forced to not only share space and come to terms with each other and with the past, but also to deal with the fact of Declan's gayness and with the friends who stand by him.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
This is an early novel from Toibin, whose rather quiet explorations of human interaction and emotion sort of sneak up and clobber you. Helen, a married woman with two small sons, learns that her brother Declan is desperately ill and has asked for her. When she arrives at the hospital in the company of her brother's friend, a stranger to her, she realizes the nature of Declan's illness, and what it means about his life. Declan is dying of AIDS-related complications; he is a gay man in Ireland in the 1990's, and has no permanent partner...just a good many loving and caring friends. Declan and Helen have been estranged from their mother and grandmother for years, (in fact her husband and children have never met her mother) but he insists that she must go inform their mother of his situation. Furthermore, he wants to spend time at their grandmother's home on the coast, where they were "abandoned" as children one summer while their father--unbeknownst to them at the time--was dying. In the course of a difficult few days, Helen shares stories with Declan's friends, Larry and Paul, who have been caring for him during his bad patches. She learns a good deal about them, about Declan's life, and of course, about herself. Eventually, she and her mother find some common ground in their love for Declan and desire to help him. There are flashes of brilliant humor, both the wry and the raucous sort.. There are also moments that unexpectedly knock the wind out of your chest and make your eyes a bit leaky. I loved it.… (more)
LibraryThing member cala3
could not get into it; abandoned pretty quickly
LibraryThing member karensaville
A young man is dying of AIDS and he invites his sister, two of his friends and his mother and grandmother to spend his final weeks in his grandmothers house by the sea. His sister has been estranged from her mother and grandmother and this enforced time together helps to rebuild their relationships. An interesting story with characters from several generations and walks of life thrown together at a sad time.… (more)
LibraryThing member MiserableLibrarian
Helen, her mother, and her grandmother, come together after years of estrangement to care for her dying brother. This is the story of family relationships, communication, and the need to find meaning in a sometimes-seemingly random world. The writing is good, in this the author’s fourth book.
LibraryThing member lmichet
Did not enjoy this very much at all. It's a patchy, unfocused work, thick with uninteresting family crises and bitter, unpleasant, irritating characters. The resolution isn't strong enough to make up for the pages of uninteresting guff you have to wade through to get there. The one thing this book could have had that would have made it interesting-- more on what it was like to be gay in Ireland in the later decades of the 20th century-- was simply not there. There were two chapters where two men told thier stories, but it was a bit thin, and left me wondering why Colm Toibin hadn't fleshed that out more.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member otterley
The Blackwater Lightship is long gone, the house at Cush is falling into the sea and Declan is dying of AIDS. Three women and three gay men come together in a lonely house by the sea, the husbands and the fathers being dead or absent. At times the Blackwater Lightship is bleak and depressing, but it starts with communal music making and ends with tentative moves towards communication and reconciliation. Declan will die, off camera, but the lives he leaves behind will continue on their separate trajectories, linked by common experience and possibility. Toibin writes very subtly and ambiguously, never allowing his reader to jump to easy solutions; juxtaposing story telling with ruthless descriptions of the physical decay of the terminal AIDS patient. A memorable read.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexdaw
Great stuff. Loved how people cross themselves before they go for a swim in the ocean. Had a bit of difficulty with suspension of disbelief about whether someone would jump in a car with a complete stranger because he said her brother was in hospital and asked to see her....but then ...perhaps you would...obviously stranger danger was drilled into me!!!! But once I got over that was fascinated by the relationships - siblings, mother/daughter, grandmother/grand-daughter, husband/wife. Tis the Irish in me I know. Nothing like a good going over of entrails - the eternal search for truth.… (more)
LibraryThing member creynolds
I picked this up because I loved Brooklyn: A Novel, also written by Colm Toibin. Although this was fine, it did not live up to my expectations.
LibraryThing member EscapeBookClub
Read in August 2000. A family brought together by their brother, son and grandson who is dying of AIDs. This is beautifully written and it was one that inspired a great deal of discussion in our group.
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I enjoyed Toibin's writing and characterizations, but I have to admit, this book just didn't hold my attention. Simply, I never found a way into really caring about the characters, and there wasn't enough originality--newness--to keep me truly involved. I have a habit of finishing I did. It wasn't something I'll particularly remember, and it wasn't something I'm sorry to have found. If you like family dramas and the re-knitting of family ties, this may be up your alley--it just wasn't up mine.… (more)
LibraryThing member grheault
A tense family comes together in close quarters, at grandmother's ocean cliff house, as they care for a son/grandson/brother dying of AIDS. Two gay friends act as a counterpoint to the family, providing both real nursing help and comic relief. The stage is set for telling life stories and revealing vulnerabilities. One story of young love was most touching, along with the inability to consecrate it officially in marriage/committment except through the renegade offices of a Catholic priest willing to clandestinely perform the rites. I was also reminded of how differently children experience adult events, like death, divorce, and how important it is to involve them, to understand their fears, and to resolve them early on. Good book, and I look forward to more.… (more)
LibraryThing member franoscar
He writes very well. I didn't like this as much as Brooklyn. The main character is a woman who is dealing with family issues, her upbringing and her current family. She is tracing her problems to her mother and her experiences when her father was sick & died. Her grandmother, the alternative mother figure, is also present. Her brother turns up sick with AIDS and they come together to care for him. Her brother comes with 2 friends who are a little bit plugged in. Maybe as foils. Maybe to include the long nutty story about the French priest who privately marries a gay couple. So, I was a little disappointed.… (more)
LibraryThing member jennyo
From the back cover of the dust jacket:

"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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member PAPatrick
Like "Three Junes" in the sense that it's a family drama built at least in part around a gay family member and the effect of AIDS on that community. But Toibin does it so much better.
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
"It might have been better, she felt, if there never had been people, if this turning world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love. "

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member oldblack
I thought this was an excellent book. I found the relationship between the women of the three generations to be well presented with the right balance of mystery and revelation. The context of the homes in Ireland was, of course, also one of the features of the book, but Toibin seemed to be generalising that too - the idea that places we encounter when we're growing up can have a lasting impact on our lives. Similarly, a person's childhood relationships with siblings and parents can leave them emotionally scarred (or presumably the opposite), or at the very least can be an enduring unconscious influence on our later feelings and behaviours.
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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
Nice, well-crafted novel about 1990s Ireland, families, AIDS, and lighthouses (rather disappointingly there's no actual lightship involved). Helen has been getting along very nicely without any contact with her mother and grandmother for so long that she doesn't quite seem to remember what it is that she can't forgive them for. But then there's a crisis and she's forced to re-establish contact...
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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tatteredpage
I never would have read this book had it not been for a reading group I'm in, but I'm glad I did. I feared because of the subject matter that it would turn out to be sappy or overly sentimental, but Toibin kept those well in check and instead presented the stories of a family (perhaps one might argue two families) in a way that was very endearing, funny and saddening. Overall it was a great reflection on life and all the influences, challenges and pitfalls that come with it. In a way I felt like I came to understand the characters a bit, like I got to know them, and I admit I was sad to have to turn that last page.… (more)
LibraryThing member hovercraftofeels
I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I began this book because Tóibín handed readers a pretty unlikeable protagonist. Her bitterness becomes somewhat overbearing in certain points throughout the novel, but Tóibín is emphasising Helen's refusal to forgive her mother for leaving her and Declan, the younger brother who is now dying of AIDS, with their grandmother during the slow death of their father when they were young. She also has been unable to forgive the grandmother for keeping them. This anger and resentment follows Helen through her life and affects her relationship with her own children and husband, something she doesn't necessarily notice. The mother, Lily, is pretty much a stock hardened-by-tragedy mother figure who softens as she takes care of her ailing son. The grandmother is both entertaining and frustrating in her own rights. Honestly, the most enjoyable characters are the three gay men: Paul, Larry, and Declan. Their stories are what kept me so engaged with this novel and it's through these three men that our female characters learn humility and to regard love as something other than manipulation.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
Helen lives a predictable, pleasant life, until suddenly a stranger turns up and tells her that her brother is sick--is, in fact, dying of AIDS in a nearby hospital. Declan wants to stay in their grandmother's cottage while he recuperates from his latest hospital stay. His sister, mother, and grandmother are thus thrown together in a small sea-shore cottage, forced into close quarters after a decade of estrangement. Two of his friends come to keep him company and look after his health, causing further moments of awkwardness.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Eoin
Tóibín is a true master and this book is part of the proof. The beauty and suppleness of the prose serves both to mediate and enhance the emotional tone. It is unbearable and delightful. Worth it for anyone who has a family. Or is mortal. Or would like to know about familial relationships Ireland.
LibraryThing member LDVoorberg
I know this was shortlisted for a Booker, but I did not love it. To me the writing was sparse and cold. Dialogue made leaps and characters went on unexplained emotional roller coasters. I felt that too much was left unsaid by the narrator, so I didn't connect with any of the characters -- they were all puzzling and their motivations weren't clear. It's mostly about Helen and her relationship with her mother and grandmother -- strained because she refused to follow their agendas for her youth and because she felt abandoned by her mother when her father died. The mother oscillates between trying to love her children and being a self-centred entrepreneur. The grandmother is both open-minded and old-fashioned paradoxically. The two men that help these women with Declan are also puzzling in their devotion and self-assuredness. Declan is just a baby who wants his mother. For a character who is in the centre of the attention, he has almost no voice.
The book ends with the implication of reconciliation, but it's hard to tell if this is actually a good thing or not. Does the mother deserve it? Did she deserve her daughter's isolating behaviour? We all make choices based on what we think is needed at the time, but we cannot know the long term ramifications on others. Are we to be held accountable for that? Maybe that's what this book is asking.
… (more)
LibraryThing member moonshineandrosefire
This is the story of Helen Doherty and her family. Helen is told that her brother Declan is in the hospital and needs to see her. She and her brother go to their grandmother's delapidated guest house with his two friends. Declan's friends know the whole truth that Declan's family does not: that Declan has AIDS and is dying. Declan and Helen have sad memories of their grandmother's guest house - they had stayed with their grandmother while their father died of cancer. Their mother, Lily, had returned to them cold and remote and their relationship with her and subsequently their grandmother was seriously affected into later life - especially for Helen. I loved this book; the story was poignant and beautifully written. I give it an A+! and recommend it to anyone who likes stories about the dynamics of families.… (more)




0743203313 / 9780743203319
Page: 0.4401 seconds