Woe and Redemption: Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship

March 20 2014
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I read Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship by the window of my Brooklyn apartment during a calm and lukewarm afternoon. Winter hadn’t yet arrived and the leaves outside bobbed gently in a light breeze. This quiet novel was the perfect companion, for it allows you to listen to the sounds of the countryside, the buzzing of insects, the crashing of waves. It’s a story about dying, about bringing together an estranged family through pain, but it’s the silences that drew me in, kept me near the rural scenery of Wexford and the modern spirit of Dublin. A sparsely written and deeply unfunny novel told in Toibin’s signature style.

Helen, the principal character, is surprised to hear that her younger brother, Declan, is dying of AIDs. Surprised, because she was unaware that he was even gay. And she hears this from a friend of his, a stranger, someone who seems to know her brother far better than she ever could. Declan would like Helen to break the news to their mother and bring her to their grandmother’s home in Wexford—a place where, as children, they would visit, and where Declan would like to go after he leaves the hospital. But after the death of their father, neither Helen nor Declan kept in contact with their mother. It was too painful. She had hidden the news of their father’s cancer from them, and Helen, by her own admission, could never forgive her for it. Now, with Declan dying, the three of them must come together for his sake, to perhaps mend a family that has been broken for years.

It is a book about mothering, but none of the women display this quality. It is Declan’s male friends who take care of him. Though a sincere look into the perceptions of homosexuality in modern Ireland, it would be rather reductive to qualify it as a gay novel. It is about an Ireland grappling with its rural past and its cosmopolitan future, where the scenery is as much a character as Declan’s friends and family. The Blackwater Lightship is raw and unapologetic. That we may become close to those we left behind to pursue our own ambitions when the specter of death appears before us is something altogether real and unforgiving. When Helen decides to walk down the cliff near her grandmother’s house to take in the sea, she doesn’t say much—only gazes at the sea. It allowed me to breathe and think about my own life, my family, and the choices I’ve made. Time moves forward regardless of which direction we look—to the past or the future—and it’s true that sometimes it’s too late to amend the mistakes we’ve made. We live forever thinking of the trail we left behind, never to return.

The Blackwater Lightship
Colm Tóibín

Set in Ireland in the early 1990s, this is the story of Helen, her mother, and her grandmother, who have come together after a decade of estrangement to tend to Helen’s beloved brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. Along with Declan’s two friends, the six of them, from different generations and with different beliefs, are forced to navigate the shoals of their own histories and come to terms with each other. Shortlisted for the 2000 Man Booker Prize and written in spare, luminous prose, The Blackwater Lightship explores the nature of love and the complex emotions of a family at war with itself.

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