The Blackwater Lightship.
I finished Colm Toibin’s The Master late last year- actually, I’m not sure I ever got a chance to post about it here because it was around the holidays- and was absolutely blown away by the writing. The Master was a fabulous book with beautiful writing that made me want to read Henry James. That’s talent, kids. After throwing the book at my brother, I picked up another of Toibin’s books, The Blackwater Lightship, as I am biding my time until his new book, Brooklyn, comes out in paperback. Or I get to the library. You know, whichever comes first.
The Blackwater Lightship is set in Ireland in the 1990s as three generations of women learn that their grandson/son/brother has AIDS, and he’s quite sick. The mother and grandmother are also learning this at the same time as learning that Declan is gay, so there’s quite a bit of internal and external conflict as each tries to adapt to this knowledge. For being the calayst of so much consternation, however, the story involves Declan in a fairly minor role, and instead centers around three women- Dora, the grandmother; Lilly, the mother; and Helen, the daughter, who have all been estranged- though they would never quite call it that- for years.
The direness of the Declan’s health forces all three women to stay at Dora’s house, where Helen and Declan were left for months as children while their father battled cancer and ultimately died. Being forced to return to the house therefore triggers inescapable memories and Helen and Lilly finally discuss their differences.
Although the book focuses quite a bit on Helen and the reader is convinced that she must have been done a terrible wrong by her mother, the characters eventually become full and it’s clear that Helen has been, if not an unreliable, at least an overtly biased narrator. Perhaps this is part of the reason I had my doubts in the middle of the novel about Helen’s rapidly declining likeability and whether the novel would be able to regain my interest and affections. I think it was able to do so in part because the subject matter is of personal importance to Toibin. In the end, it was a novel of subtle depth (though that seems to be a contradiction) and symbolism that is well taken but does not beat one over the head. I can see why it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I can also see why it fell short. At the same time, Toibin’s abilities are clear, and it’s not surprising The Master came to follow.
I would recommend reading Toibin without a second thought, but would hesitate to tell people to start with this novel for fear they would also stop with it. But if you’re of a persevering nature, or have already been exposed to Toibin and have a bit of patience, this book is a solid, if slightly underwelming read.