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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.

 

I actually read this novel last year, but wanted to write about it here because it was the best book I’d read for a long time. The main character, independent and self-contained yet passive, along with all the small details of her life in New York, moved me and lingered in my mind afterwards.

Set in the 1950s, it is about a young Irish girl, Eilis, who lives with her widowed mother and glamorous older sister, Rose. Although they will miss Eilis greatly, Rose and her mother, with the help of the priest Father Flood, create a plan for her to move to New York so that she can have a better life with more opportunities. So Eilis somewhat reluctantly leaves her small town and close family, and sets out alone on the long journey to Brooklyn.

The first part of the book describes her new life: working in a department store, living in a lodging house run by an Irish landlady, and taking book-keeping classes in the evenings. In the lodging house, there are four other Irish women: two young girls, Patty and Diana, who are (in Eilis’ word) ‘man-mad’ and always dressing up and going out on the town. The other two, known as Miss McAdam and Miss Heffernan, are slightly older, prim and disapproving of the younger girls’ antics. The relationships with the other boarders and her landlady are important but Eilis doesn’t completely fit into either group and this begins the characterisation of her as a fairly solitary person, who maintains her individuality and own opinions, despite being outwardly quiet and polite. Although she is painfully homesick at first, she is also shown as being receptive to all the fascinating new experiences that New York offers her:

For each day, she thought, she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away, get it out of her system so that it did not keep her awake at night or fill her dreams with flashes of what had actually happened and other flashes that had nothing to do with anything familiar, but were full of rushes of colour or crowds of people, everything frenzied and fast.

A very important part of Eilis’ new life is the community of Irish people living in New York, brought together by church-organised events such as dances, which can bring the hope of romance, and the special Christmas dinner arranged for people who would otherwise be alone. Eilis helps out by serving food at this event and I loved this scene. At the end of the dinner, an older man sings to her in front of all the guests:

He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words – Ma bhionn tu liom, a stoirin mo chroi – and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength and confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair.

After some time of loneliness, Eilis meets a man and starts a relationship with him. I enjoyed reading about this, the way the relationship developed, the differences between the two characters, the way that Eilis fell quite passively into the affair (she was chosen, rather than choosing) but then love grew between them. Eilis is then called back to Ireland suddenly and forced to compare her old and new lives. I think the book shows how it is possible to adapt and create a life wherever one is, but that often it is only chance that has led us to one place, one job, one marriage.  It made clear to me how powerless Eilis in particular was, as a young girl, but equally how there were things in her life that she did possess and love: her room, her books, the walk to work through the streets of Brooklyn in the morning.

I think, finally, the style of this book was what made me love it. It is written in a very understated way, leaving room for the reader’s own interpretations. There’s a kind of blankness to the writing sometimes, which gives it a very particular atmosphere, and seems appropriate to a quiet, solitary character such as Eilis. It almost has a sense of mystery to it, although not in the conventional sense, and I was sometimes left wondering what was going on under the surface. After all, Eilis doesn’t have much opportunity to express or dwell on her feelings, and all her energy is used adapting to her new life. Even at the start of the novel, in Ireland, there was a sense of restraint, of the need to be quiet and keep secrets. Eilis resolves not to tell her mother and Rose of her reluctance to leave for Brooklyn:

She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America and leaving home for the first time. She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt, and she would keep it from herself if she had to until she was away from them.

There was, she thought, enough sadness in the house, maybe even more than she realised. She would try as best she could not to add to it.