• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,081,336 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[13] The Blackwater Lightship – Colm Toibin

Two of my favorites writers are Irish: John Banville and Colm Toibin. Two of my favorite gay writers are Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst. I discovered Tobin’s works in 2004, and this is the introductory work.
The Blackwater Lightship explores the nature of relationship between family members and between friends. It is the story of three generations of an estranged family reuniting to tender an untimely death. As the story ominously unfolds, deeper and more unplumbed layers of the wounds, emotions, misunderstanding, and pent-up anger manifest as friends of dying Declan, who had been through all the difficult times in battling AIDS, joined the begrudged family. It was at such sober and difficult time like this that everyone, regardless of their past wounds, unforgiving grudges, and even moral disapproval of homosexual life, should forget their differences and prioritize Declan’s comfort and happiness.

Helen dreaded breaking the news of her brother’s sickness to her mother, Lily, not only because of the despondent nature of the incurable disease, but also due to the fact that she had deliberately excluded her mother from her life for 10 years. Ever since the row she had with her mother about moving to Dublin for school, Helen shut herself off to her mother, who had never got over the early, unexpected death of Helen’s father. Helen could never forgive Lily of her abandoning her and her brother at the Granny’s house after her father’s funeral. Whereas for Lily, she had never expressed her pent-up fear and shame that descended in her immediately after the funeral. The years of ice and alienation unfortunately turned into a standoffish rife that excluded Lily from her daughter’s life and family. Helen’s bitterness toward her mother pervaded into her own family life, for her husband must have learned long ago to live with and manage the web of unresolved connections when he puzzled at her periods of withdrawal and caprice.

The ingenuity of the book lies in the intensive de-layering of such family grudges and magnification of feelings in a time of mourning. Even though Lily made a promise to herself upon the burial of her husband to do her best with the children, Helen’s inveterate resentment rooted in the fact that her mother had taken her father away. In her morbid consciousness, Helen always fantasized her mother being forceful and pushy chasing after her, determined to stop her having her life. Helen wished her mother to tolerate people and accommodate their needs, but all Lily wanted was that Helen could take interests in her and her life.

Friendship is an indefeasible element of this novel. Declan’s friends have always been there fighting the disease and egging him on. When Lily was rude and hostile to his friends, telling them to leave him to her, they fearlessly confronted how they had been looking after him during numerous life-and-death occasions when the family did not even seem to be around. Paul stood his ground being the closest friend to Declan. He read all the relevant books and kept himself cognizant of the latest therapies. He knew what and how to make Declan comfortable and to mitigate his pain. Paul vowed staunchly that he would stay with Declan and he would never leave unless Declan asked him to. Declan even confided in him about his mother with phrases and sentences which were not edifying. Moved to such loyalty and love the friends showed Declan, the stiff family succumbed to what they said and was inspired to reconcile its own strife.

The Blackwater Lightship explores how true friendship can supercede relationship with family in a palpitating, brooding time of crisis. The fact that Declan chose not to trouble his mother, though he loved her, showed that the family was not as close to him as his friends were to him. This corroborated to the fact that his mother had no clue to his sexual orientation. Declan’s fear of coming out to his mother and grandmother erected the barrier that stifled him to seek help from his family. He might be so afraid that his mother, at the knowledge of his sickness, would refuse to see him, even though he desperately wanted her to know and help him. Friendship not only filled this void but also dawned on the understanding, the de-icing, and finally the reconciliation of an unplumbed grudge that spanned over three generations of a family. Friendship offered to the family, with what openness and honesty, challenged the family’s evasiveness. At one point in the book, the three friends were walking along on the beach, with Paul and Larry on either sides of Declan, quietly protecting him. This memorable scene epitomizes true friendship and is symbolic of the two lighthouses that unfailingly lights up Blackwater. Friends are guiding lights.

Last but not the least, a more submerged point. The novel reflects on the palpitating struggle of one’s gay identity. The quintessential “I knew that I was gay, but I had done nothing about it”, the self-denial, and the resolution toward love and gay marriage are all touched on in this moving tale. It is an intense tale of woe and redemption, full of entrancing stories about the characters that so fatefully overlap. It’s a humanizing, heart-thumping novel that tunes into the silent language of family.

4 Responses

  1. An extraordinary book, probably my favourite of Toibin’s (though I have yet to re-read The Master so that could change). I have his story collection Mothers and Sons awaiting, and looking forward to it enormously.

  2. John:
    I have the new story collection as well. It’s somewhere in the pile! 🙂 I really enjoyed The Master, which follows Henry James’ life with a tinge of indiscretion and his lustful desire. But Blackwater Lightship encompasses what good fiction ought to be: simple, clear, and touching.

  3. […] diamond mesmerized a woman. Colm Tóibín’, twice shortlisted for Booker Prize, author of The Blackwater Lightship and The Master, has a new book out in May 2009. I have been looking forward to his new novel like […]

  4. This review fails to include an understanding of the Irish cultural aspects of the novel. One can still get the novel on many levels, but some of the real richness of it is inherent in its Irishness, the Irish family dynamics and cultural patterns.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: