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The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

The Blackwater Lightship (1999)

by Colm Tóibín

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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‘’When I was young, lying in bed [...] I used to believe that Tuscar was a man and the Blackwater Lightship was a woman and they were both sending signals to each other and to other lighthouses, like mating calls.’’

Colm Toibin entered my top-5 squad of contemporary writers with his haunting rendition of the Atreides tragedy House of Names. I wanted to start my research of his work with a number of his earlier novels before I move on to Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship came my way. It was one of the best books I’ve read this year and it showcases how simple stories can cause a major impact on the reader when they’re well-written. And Colm Toibin definitely knows his Art…

The story is set in Ireland during the mid-90s, in Blackwater, in County Wexford, not very far from Dublin and close to the sea. Helen, a bright mind, the youngest school principal in the country, is happily married to Hugh and has succeeded in finding the balance between her career and the raising of two sons. Everything changes when she receives the news that her younger brother, Declan, is seriously ill, infected with HIV. So, she’s forced to reunite with Lily, her cruel mother, under the roof of Dora, her grandmother. A number of people has to come together for Declan’s sake and this is where the memories and faults of the past return to haunt Helen.

It is a simple story, a familiar ordeal during the 80s and the 90s when AIDS was at its peak, but great writers know how to create works of Art out of daily life. Toibin brings to focus the implications of the disease without a hint of melodrama but, most importantly, he centres his story around the complexity of human relationships that grow within a family and never let go. He writes about motherhood and the fragile, delicate balance between the three women of the family and I loved the way he depicted Helen’s fears and her struggle not to become the kind of mother Lily has been to her. He illustrates the dynamics in a problematic family and the implications of a mother’s actions and choices in direct, evocative prose that contains many moments of haunting beauty.

There are a number of elements that make this sad story such a beautiful thing to read. The setting is magical, the community by the water, the lighthouse that gives its light in Dora’s house during the evenings, the fact that most of the interactions take place at night. He creates a beautiful metaphor by using the lighthouse that once stood proudly and the name Blackwater to refer to the events of the story. Tuskar, the remaining, lonely lighthouse, dimly sheds its rays in the evening of Declan’s life and creates a haunting, foreboding atmosphere. The bleakness of the landscape is further emphasized by the lyrics of the Irish songs and the fact that Death is everywhere. The shadow of a loved one now long lost and the death that awaits in the doorstep to snatch a younger soul. The stages of grief are beautifully described in a sequence of striking scenes about the aftermath of loss, as are the omens associated with Death in the Irish culture.

Toibin transports us to the place and time with his references to politics and religious issues. I appreciated the reference to Mary Robinson -one of my favourite politicians- and the fact that he presents an extremely balanced view of the impact of Religion in the Irish community. Τhe shelter and comfort that it provides during the moments of agony and the restrictions that often come by abiding to Catholic traditions are perfectly depicted throughout the course of the story.

And then, we have the characters. Quite an oppressive family for Helen, to be honest, especially the mother. Lily simply refuses to accept what is different and tries to alter everything that doesn’t conform to the’’ family history’’ and her ideas of propriety. At the same time, Lily can do everything she wants just because she thinks she’s entitled to. A truly infuriating woman...Had I been Helen, well, let’s just say that I would have considered myself to be motherless, as cruel as it may sound. No amount of pain is an excuse for her cruelty, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Helen, Declan and Paul are all wonderful, realistic characters. Declan is such a brave, brave man and Paul is loyal and considerate to the extreme. Larry is absolutely useless but for me, the character who shares the spotlight with Helen is Dora. I ended up appreciating her deeply and I thought she was a much better mother to Helen than Lily ever was. This is the kind of story where the characters take a step back to let the past and the interactions speak for themselves and it works.

Through the descriptions of the daily life in a small Irish community, the religious and social expectations and prejudices, the aspirations of the characters and the dynamics within a family, Toibin weaves a story that is beautiful and poignant in its calm, underlying sadness. Above all, it is the way a determined, intelligent woman and a brave man fight against those who wanted to chain them to the ground. And Toibin proves, once again, why he is considered a powerhouse in today’s Literature.

*Στους φίλους από Ελλάδα οι οποίοι θα διαβάσουν το παραπάνω κείμενο, οφείλω να πώ μακριά από την μετάφραση του Gutenberg. Είναι φρικτή. Λάθη στα τοπωνύμια, λάθη στην απόδοση των εκφράσεων, λεξιλόγιο πεζοδρομίου. Πραγματικά, αδυνατώ να καταλάβω ποιες λέξεις μετέφραζε η κυρία Δημητριάδου με τον τρόπο που τις απέδιδε στα Ελληνικά...Μάλλον η ‘’μεταφράστρια’’ εμπνεύστηκε από Ελληνικές σειρές επιπέδου...ελληνικού. Δεν περίμενα βέβαια και τίποτα καλύτερο…*

My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.wordpress.com ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
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 very 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 adult 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 too flat and 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 and the need that some of the characters have to keep their sexuality hidden from their families, the story of how they ended up breaking away from their repressive backgrounds and finding a new life. Larry and Paul end up telling some of their stories to Helen and Dora. Among the older generation, there is a lot of prejudice against them and against homosexuality in general. I think the novel is also more widely 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 against her for the way Lily behaved after her husband (Helen’s father) died, the period when Helen, as 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. However I still liked this book a lot. [2011] ( )
  papercat | Jun 27, 2017 |
This is an early novel from Toibin, whose rather quiet explorations of human interaction and emotion sort of sneak up and clobber you. Helen, a married woman with two small sons, learns that her brother Declan is desperately ill and has asked for her. When she arrives at the hospital in the company of her brother's friend, a stranger to her, she realizes the nature of Declan's illness, and what it means about his life. Declan is dying of AIDS-related complications; he is a gay man in Ireland in the 1990's, and has no permanent partner...just a good many loving and caring friends. Declan and Helen have been estranged from their mother and grandmother for years, (in fact her husband and children have never met her mother) but he insists that she must go inform their mother of his situation. Furthermore, he wants to spend time at their grandmother's home on the coast, where they were "abandoned" as children one summer while their father--unbeknownst to them at the time--was dying. In the course of a difficult few days, Helen shares stories with Declan's friends, Larry and Paul, who have been caring for him during his bad patches. She learns a good deal about them, about Declan's life, and of course, about herself. Eventually, she and her mother find some common ground in their love for Declan and desire to help him. There are flashes of brilliant humor, both the wry and the raucous sort.. There are also moments that unexpectedly knock the wind out of your chest and make your eyes a bit leaky. I loved it. ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | May 31, 2017 |
Crisp writing as usual but it was a bit difficult to understand the angst that Helen feels towards her mother and grandmother, you feel as if you have missed something. ( )
  siok | Dec 19, 2016 |
"It might have been better, she felt, if there never had been people, if this turning world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love. "

Three generations of women from the same family - Helen, a young married woman, her mother Lily and granny Dora - after decades of dissent come to an uneasy truce generally by avoiding each other whenever they can. Suddenly they are forced together in the grandmother's house in order to nurse Helen's brother, Declan who is dying from Aids. Two of Declan's friends, also gay, are there to help give assistance. None of the women were previously aware that Declan was even ill. However, this is in no means an Irish gay novel it is more about tolerance, acceptance and how unresolved issues can affect families making them disjointed. In the background, as the participants de-camp to the coast of Wexford to a cliff top house whose neighbouring dwellings have succumbed to the force of the sea we are painted a picture of the decaying Ireland outside of the metropolises.

I found the female characters in particular believable and you can see in Helen, a mother of two young boys, a woman trying to reconcile what she regards as the failings in her own upbringing in the relationship that she wants to engender with her own sons yet to do this she must omit her own husband from the proceedings. There are also some pretty raw emotions on show at times however, IMHO there was something lacking in it all.

As the relationship between the three women improved so Declan's condition worsened but perhaps the truth is that the antipathy between the characters had gone on for far too long to be resolved. As they confess their perceived causes for this friction I never truly felt that any them really meant it rather it was just talk to try and placate Declan. I wasn't expecting some happy ending at the end but perhaps something more than you got. On the whole I found this an OK read but nothing more than that. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Aug 15, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Colm Tóibínprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bandini, DitteÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bandini, GiovanniÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0743203313, Paperback)

In the opening pages of The Blackwater Lightship, a stranger drives up to Helen O'Doherty's Dublin house to tell her that her brother Declan is in the hospital and needs to see her. At his request, she joins him at the creepy seaside house of their grandmother--where, as children, they awaited news of their dying father. What's more, they're not the only guests. Paul and Larry, friends of Declan who have known about his HIV diagnosis far longer than his family, are the next to arrive. And then comes Helen's estranged mother Lily, whom she hasn't seen in years. Still angry over the emotional abandonment she suffered during her youth, Helen had refused even to invite Lily to her wedding. Now she must come to terms not only with the imminent death of her beloved brother but also with her mother and grandmother--all at once.

Colm Tóibín (The Story of the Night) delivers this unsentimental account of a troubled family in spare but suggestive language. He does allow his characters a few high-spirited remarks and the occasional outburst. Otherwise, though, he keeps his tone even, allowing for the perfect integration of a light, unforced symbolism. For Lily, broken hopes and dreams are bound up with the Blackwater Lightship, one of two lighthouses that once stood in the Irish Sea near Ballyconnigar. As a child, she believed that these would always be there:

Tuskar was a man and the Blackwater Lightship was a woman and they were both sending signals to each other and to other lighthouses, like mating calls. He was forceful and strong and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen.
For Helen, on the other hand, it was the house itself that prompted her deepest, happiest fantasies. But now Lily has sold the property and shattered Helen's dream that "it would be her refuge, and that her mother, despite everything, would be there for her and would take her in and shelter her and protect her. She had never entertained this thought before; now, she knew that it was irrational and groundless, but nonetheless ... she knew that it was real and it explained everything." What Declan has done by drawing them all together at Granny's house is to enact this potent, poignant fantasy. Whether it has the power to reconstruct his family is another matter, but in any case, The Blackwater Lightship remains a gripping narrative, deftly delivered by a master storyteller. --Regina Marler

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:37 -0400)

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Helen, her mother, and her grandmother come together to care for Helen's terminally ill brother.

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