Colm Toibin’s (whose surname I am going to denude of its accents from here on, partly because I’m not sure how to do them on my Mac and partly to help search results: ruthless, aren’t I, Colm?) fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. I re-read it this week as part of a book group discussion, and was pleased to enjoy it even more than I did the first time around.
It’s set in contemporary, rural Ireland, and concerns three women – Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Dora – who are brought together after years of cold separation. Their common cause is looking after Helen’s brother (Lily’s son) Declan, who is dying of Aids. His slow decline through the book is harrowing, and the story is gloomy enough elsewhere as it is.
It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love. She stood at the edge of the cliff until the sun came out from behind the black rainclouds.
Trying to love is one of the things that The Blackwater Lightship is about: the title refers to a lighthouse which Lily remembers as a child, and which she thought of as female standing against the other lighthouse, the ‘male’ Tuskar:
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. And I thought they were calling to each other; it was very satisfying, him being strong and her being faithful. … And all that turned out not to be true.
Women are the principal players in a novel which is absolutely driven by its characters, and it is this achievement which makes it such a great and vivid book, despite its downcast aspect. Not a false note is sounded in the dialogue or interactions between the characters – Helen’s coldness, Lily’s combative nature, Dora’s ambiguity, all seem perfectly right – and the whole of the book has a cleanliness and purity to the writing which is like clear running water and absolutely invigorating. As well as women and men, Toibin does children brilliantly, and the portrayal of Declan and Helen as children (in a flashback which goes some way to explaining the family antipathies) is masterly. There are numerous just-so details which sound and feel right as though from our own memories:
The house was gone now. In her mind, she went through each room again, how each door closed – the door to her parents’ room almost noiseless, the door to Declan’s room more stubborn, impossible to open or close without alerting the whole house – or the light switches – the one outside the bathroom which Declan when he was tall enough loved turning off while someone was inside, the light switch inside her bedroom door, firm and hard, to be turned on and off decisively, unlike the light switch in her parents’ room, which could be switched on and off with a little flick.
In the middle of all this minimalism and understated description, there are rich and strong emotions at play, and even the secondary characters, like Declan’s friends Paul and Larry, are fully fleshed and utterly real and true. There’s even some (welcome) light relief, from the nosy Kehoe sisters and Larry’s garrulous ways, some of which is rendered in an Irish speech pattern so well observed that it will seem incomprehensible to some (“God, it’s gas the names of the cats” – tr: the cats’ names are absolutely hilarious), and some from stories told within the story:
Didn’t I tell you what Kitty Walsh from the Ballagh did last year, and she’s so blind she can’t see in front of her nose, and that’s God’s truth. Didn’t she go into the eye man the day before her appointment, and she just said she was looking at spectacle frames – her sister Winnie told me this – and didn’t she look closely at the letters when the door was open, you know, the letters you have to read. She wrote them down and went home and learned them off. So by the next day the eye man complimented her on her sight when she could hardly see the colour of the money she was paying him with. And she driving a Mazda mad all over the country now. Get into the ditch if you see her coming. A red Mazda.
The cover of the paperback has a quote which says “We shall be living with and reading The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years.” Well, eight and counting. No sweat, I’d say.