The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Recently, various circumstances have made it difficult for me to concentrate on a book or have much of an opinion about what I’m reading, which is clearly not going to help with this blog. However, I think I’m back in the fiction mood again now (what a relief), so here are a few vague thoughts about the latest novel I read, The Blackwater Lightship…

This novel is about three generations of an Irish family, brother and sister Declan and Helen, their mother Lily, and grandmother Dora. The family are virtually estranged from each other, but when they discover that Declan is seriously ill, they are brought back together and forced to spend time in each other’s company. Helen is perhaps the main character, if there is one, as we learn most about her inner life and memories of childhood. She is quite a complex person, married with two sons, very determined, a successful headteacher, apparently quite intimidating to people who don’t know her well. 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 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 quite flat and overly 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, how some of the characters have to keep their sexuality hidden from their families, and how they ended up breaking away from their repressive backgrounds and finding a new life. Larry and Paul end up telling some of their life stories to Helen and Dora. Among the older generations, there is undisguised prejudice against them and against homosexuality in general. Related to this, I think the novel is also 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 for the way Lily behaved after her husband (Helen’s father) died, and the period when Helen, still only 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. I’m curious to read some of his other more recent novels and see whether they are just as powerful.



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