Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin's acclaimed late 90s novel "The Blackwater Lightship" is a story about three generations of an estranged Irish family brought back together by the news that Declan, brother to Helen, is dying. In an arresting opening scene, Helen is acting as a party host for her husband, whilst preparing for him to take their two sons away for a week. As soon as she has seen them off, she has a visitor. Her brother Declan has asked for her to go and see him in the hospital. Declan has AIDS. This elegant opening is used by Toibin to set up a contrived setting, where Declan is taken to his grandmother's where 3 generations of the women in his family are brought under the same roof, alongside 2 of his friends. We discover that Helen doesn't speak to her mother, and that her mother and grandmother also don't get on. The silences of broken families are filled in by them all being brought under one roof for the first time. Of Declan we learn little, other than what he was like as a child, he is defined almost entirely by his illness - the friends who have tended to him, and now, reluctantly, at his request have let his family back into his life. We find out more about their lives than Declans. Toibin's adept at describing the replacement family a gay man builds around him when his real family exclude, or are excluded.

The setting, on a crumbling coastline, where the Blackwater Lightship is a metaphor for what has been lost (there were once two lighthouses, looking at each other, like lovers across a room). Over the course of the novel, which follows the trajectory of Declan's illness, the three women are asked to confront their hostilities to each other. Whether or not you are taken by this novel depends, I think, on how easy you are with Toibin's manipulations. The only straight men in the novel are dead (Helen's father) or absent (her husband), and the story - an unwrapping of past hurt, missed opportunities - is played out through the women in the family, with their shared love for Declan, being the glue that starts to bring them together again. Helen is a successful head teacher, her mother is a thriving business woman, yet they cannot see their similarities. Rural Ireland is played out as a place that has to be got away from, else it will draw you in and strangle you - yet there are no great events in this family's life, the betrayals are unspoken, perceived. Helen's husband tiptoes around her past, and decides not to delve too deeply when she doesn't invite her family to her wedding. Yet, Helen has estranged Declan as well. Here is hurt left to grow over the years.

The other Toibin I've read, "Brooklyn", takes a similar theme, but the millieu is different, an oppressive Ireland of the 1950s dominated by poverty and priests, with power maintained through silence. In 1990s Ireland, Toibin seems to be saying that the silence is what remains.

It's undoubtedly an elegant novel, and Toibin's prose is much praised, yet he writes in a transatlantic style that though it travels easily (to Booker shortlists and to American universities) isn't really strong enough to carry what is, in many ways, a long short story. If the Jamesian languidness of "Brooklyn" (and presumably "The Master") aren't quite formed in his prose at this point, there's still a pointing towards it. Like Ishiguro you feel that there has been a deliberate excising of a more emotional style. Yet, transatlantic as it might be, its also a very middle-class novel. These characters would easily fit into the mainstream of British literary fiction. Like in Mike Leigh's film "Secrets and Lies" you only really feel they exist within the parameters in which we see them. The backstory is just that, in the background, to illuminate points of difference between the claustrophobic cast of characters.

Family and death - perhaps "The Dead" retains a hold over Irish fiction even now - yet this novel seems almost pathological in its self-imposed misery. Unlike Anne Enright's similarly themed (but differently structured) "The Gathering", there is not much fun to be had. I can't remember another novel that so dwells on the illness of one of its characters, another pathology - perhaps the end of the 20th century allowed the "taboo" to be not just lifted but explored? There is resolution of a sort, after all there has to be, given the novelist's contrivance, though its of a tentative sort. Helen's mother would very much like to come and see her and her children, but she promises not to stay "overnight." Certain proprietaries are necessary it seems, not to mend the past, but to retain the truce. Toibin seems to be saying that in a very modern Ireland, nothing much has really changed, underneath it all - but perhaps the reader, or at least this reader, requires a bit more convincing. "Get over yourself" you feel like saying, but in this novel, nobody would have the language for it; and, unusually for an Irish writer, neither does the novelist.

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