Katherine Bailey on Books
Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Irish Authors The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toiben

Though Tóibín’s 2000 novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it nonetheless falls into the category of “notable and neglected” books. Only a writer of Tóibín’s wit and clarity could pull off fiction such as this, a novel showcasing the disheartening subjects of death and familial enmity and estrangement. The protagonist, 27-year-old Declan Breen, is a gay man dying of AIDs. (Tóibín himself is gay.) Because his decline is terminal, Declan understandably takes center stage, yet his sister Helen, who is four years older, propels the plot. It is her consciousness that informs most of the narrative, and Tóibín filters flashbacks of the family’s troubled past through her memory.

Early in the novel Declan asks to be taken from his Dublin hospital bed to spend his final days at his grandmother’s remote house on a cliff overlooking the Wexford coast. There, two gay friends, Paul and Larry, neither of them his partner, join the three generations of women -- sister, mother and grandmother -- in giving him palliative care. The interaction between the five caregivers and between them and the dying man is immeasurably compelling. For all their love and generosity toward Declan, the characters have, of course, issues of their own to deal with. Helen is a Dublin school principal whose teacher husband has obligingly taken their two toddler sons to his relatives in Donegal while Helen must be away from home. Lily, mother of Declan and Helen, is a busy self-involved CEO of a Wexford business. A strong current running through The Blackwater Lightship is this tension between selfishness and altruism when a loved one is dying.

Pivotal to the plot is the mutual resentment between Helen and Lily. Helen harbors anger toward her mother because of her mishandling of her father’s premature death from cancer when Helen was only 11. Now as an adult Helen confides in Declan’s friend Paul: “When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back. When my father died I was left alone by my mother and grandmother…I got no comfort or consolation from them.”

In the days following her young husband’s death Lily had apparently assumed regal airs. Helen recalls, “Her mother held court.” Later she tells Paul, “My mother taught me never to trust anyone’s love because she was always on the verge of withdrawing her own. I associated love with loss, that’s what I did.”

For her part, Lily seems to be permanently offended because Helen once refused to accept a teaching position that Lily had arranged for her in Wexford. Clearly, Helen is not the tractable daughter Lily wanted. The mother/daughter rift is severe: Lily has never met her son-in-law or her two grandsons.

Nonetheless mother and daughter are united in waiting on Declan. Understandably, Declan broods as the shipwreck of his wasted body is sinking for perhaps the last time. Tóibín writes: “Helen saw how uneasy Paul and Larry had become. “Declan’s sunken mood had rendered them useless; if the family were not there, she felt, his friends would have been able to do something, but the signals in the room, the connections were too tangled and complex now, and no one could think of anything to say, and a strange embarrassed sadness descended on the company.”

With each of Declan’s setbacks, both Helen and Lily become emotional and shed hidden or overt tears. Helen realizes, “that at some point in the afternoon the opportunity had come and passed for her to put her arms around her mother, cry alongside her and forgive her everything, and promise to start a new relationship.”

This web of unresolved human connections is undoubtedly the novel’s tour de force. It should be noted that despite the subject matter, Tóibín sprinkles his prose with humor. The exchanges between the two gay men and the outspoken grandmother Dora are particularly funny. From the book’s outset we know, of course, Declan’s tragic fate. Tóibín is at his best presenting the novel’s moving and unforgettable conclusion.