Colm Tóibín is highly acclaimed, but up till now I hadn’t read anything by him. So I’m putting that right, and starting with one of his earlier novels. The Blackwater Lightship is his third, and was published in 1999. It is set in the early ‘90s, on the east coast of Ireland.
The story begins with Helen comforting her younger son who has had a nightmare. Helen, her husband Hugh and her two children prepare for a party, where there is Irish singing. The next day, Hugh and the children leave for a holiday; Helen is to follow later. But her plans are interrupted when she receives a message that her brother Declan has AIDS and is very ill. He wants to see her, and he wants her to tell her mother and grandmother how ill he is and why. They do not know that he is gay. Helen has recently become reconciled with her Granny after a long estrangement, but she has had no contact with her mother Lily for many years. Lily has never met her husband and children. Helen, Lily, Declan and two of his friends arrive at Granny’s isolated house by the sea. How will they cope with the tension of being together under these circumstances?
Though Declan’s illness is described in some detail, this is not primarily a book about AIDS, or even about being gay. Its main theme is mothering – which is why Helen is first shown as a mother, even though Hugh and the children are peripheral to the rest of the action. Helen feels a ‘bitter resentment’ towards her mother, which has ‘clouded her life’. ‘I would really like to run my mother over in the car’, she says, ‘that’s what I would really like to do.’ Declan hasn’t lost contact with Lily in the same way as Helen, but the best mothering in his life has come from two of his gay friends. Lily feels ambiguous about her own mother, who in turn is critical of her. Is it too late for these wounds to be healed?
A second and related theme is absence and loss. The Blackwater lightship of the title is an absence. There used to be two lighthouses off the coast, and Lily remembers as a child thinking that the two were a woman and a man who sent ‘mating signals’ to each other with their lights. Now the Blackwater lightship is gone and only the Tuskar lighthouse remains. ‘I thought it would always be there,’ Lily says. The death of her husband when he was still young is a loss that has shaped her life, just as the loss of her father has shaped Helen’s. What, she wonders, will it be like to be ‘back as a member of this family she had so determinedly tried to leave’? There are various symbols of loss in the story, for example the ruined house further down the beach which has fallen victim to the erosion of the cliffs. The sea, on the other hand, is a constant – though one that is indifferent to human needs and feelings. This is not the most cheerful of stories. But it is also about love.
A review I read of this book by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books was more than usually helpful to my understanding of it. He sees the novel as particularly Irish, in part because of the mixture of old and new in Irish life and culture it depicts. The young, for example, are not stereotyped as ‘modern’, or the old as ‘traditional’. Hugh teaches in an Irish school; Helen is principal of a comprehensive. Lily runs a company that sells and installs computers. (‘Just call us,’ she tells her customers, ‘and we’ll be here for you’ – they get more mothering than poor Helen ever did.) Granny carries a flick knife, and is learning to drive. The responses of the characters to Roman Catholicism and homosexuality are also somewhat unexpected.
Eagleton also places Tóibín’s prose in an Irish context as ‘post-colonial’. He describes his style as ‘austere’, as opposed to some earlier ‘colonial’ Irish writing which was ‘elevated, extravagant, mythopoeic, laced with surreal fantasy’; English, but deliberately dissociated from England. Tóibín, he says, has moved on from this. His writing is spare, but does not lack detail; in fact it is very precise. But it avoids any hint of sentimentality, which is something of a feat, given the subject matter – though the book is much the stronger for it.
The Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999; the prize went to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. If I were choosing which of the two to read, I’d pick this one; despite its subject matter, it is much less depressing.
You can read more about Colm Tóibín here