By a curious coincidence I finished re-reading Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship minutes before turning on the TV news to learn of the Irish government’s decision to accept a financial bail-out from the IMF and EU. Toibin’s book was published at the height of the Irish boom (or should that be ‘bubble’?) at the end of the 1990s and what unfolds in the stories that the novel’s six characters reveal to each other as they attend the dying Declan in the crumbling house by the sea is, partially at least, the story of the changes in Irish family and public life in the last few decades, and especially in the boom years of the 1990s.
In The Blackwater Lightship, set in Ireland during the early 1990s, a young man, Declan, is dying of AIDS and around him gather his friends and his family – his sister, mother and grandmother. The family is the central focus: a dysfunctional family represented by three generations of women who find it hard enough to get along at the best of times. It is considered to be Tóibín’s best novel and was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999, regarded as one of the most perfect novels of loss and the painful inevitability of change of recent years. It is entirely unsentimental, but deeply moving; Toibin’s writing is spare and exquisitely beautiful, and the narrative progresses towards an ending which offers no easy solutions or cheap sentiment.
Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother have come together to tend to Helen’s brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan’s two friends, the six of them are forced to come to terms with each other. ‘You know, in my family,’ remarks Larry, the gay architect, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones – still haven’t told my parents that they are heterosexual.’ This is one of the flashes of humour – and insight – in this harrowing and deeply serious novel, which is not essentially about AIDS, nor a ‘gay’ novel. It is about the family, the limits of communication between family members and the isolation and hurt that can fester at the heart of the family.
The Blackwater Lightship is not a straightforward novel. There’s no happy conclusion. By turns it is shocking and moving. Its stark, spare prose lulls the reader into a false sense of comfort, a bit like the calm before the storm, because the nub of this novel is far from pleasant. Exploring the notions of family ties and how history binds us together no matter how hard we might try to escape it, it also looks at morals, manners and the pain we can dish out with one hand and hold close with the other.
– Reading Matters
Colm Tóibín’s austere, monkish prose, in which everything is exactly itself and redolent of nothing else…explores ambiguous feelings in an unambiguous world. Its matter-of-fact portrayal of Declan’s physical decay intensifies the horror of it without being contrivedly clinical, which would be the mere inverse of sentimentalism. There are times when one wishes this tight-lipped author would break out of his extreme verbal evenness for some more costly imaginative gesture; Roddy Doyle has called his writing ‘daring and precise’, but this is only 50 per cent accurate. Even so, it is a style marvellously adept at registering the sheer contingency of things: how one light-switch is firm and hard while another needs only a small flick, how difficult it is to find a convenient hospital car park even when you have a dying man in the back of your car. The novel shows us discreetly what a practical, complicated matter dying is, how much logistics and paraphernalia it requires, and its unflinchingly exact style is a kind of respect paid to this. The commonplace and the catastrophic lie cheek-by-jowl, as Helen notes that the specialist treating her desperately sick brother seems to have had a pudding-bowl haircut. Few pieces of fiction remind us so unpreachingly that in the midst of death we are in life.
– Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books