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The Blackwater Lightship (2000) by Colm Toibin

Estranged for years, three generations of women are forced together in the grandmother’s remote Wexford cottage through the slow death from AIDS of the youngest woman’s son, who inadvertently introduces the protagonists to the reality of life for gay men in Ireland at the turn of the Millennium.


Colm Toibin has produced an absolutely outstanding novel, and for me his genius lies in writing simple and controlled prose whilst exploring the rawest of human emotions.


There is no hysteria or hyperbole in the text, and yet the reactions that it provoked within me were extraordinary because Toibin places the reader right in the thick of the interactions between the characters, and you can feel their responses, often in quite a visceral way in lots of scenes.


Helen’s brother Declan is in the final throes of an AIDS related illness, and Toibin’s descriptions of the agonies he suffers are right on the money. I had severe meningitis last year which involved being out of it for three days, terrible headaches, retching, added to with hallucinations from a combination of morphine and heavy duty sedation but it was the effect on those observing that fascinated me.


Helen’s father died when she was ten. The relationship between daughter and emotionally detached, cold and yet grieving mother really struck a chord. At one stage in the wake of my Mum’s suicide things got so bad between my Dad and me that someone almost said something. And in the Blackwater Lightship we see the consequences of suppressed emotions across the generations as Granny, Mother and Daughter explore the real meaning between past events and their impact on Declan’s unfurling tragedy.


“Slagging” is a great Irish term for the banter that goes on in families, but in this novel Toibin acknowledges it’s role in helping to gloss over unmentionable subjects, and one of the best passages in the book sees Paul, part of Declan’s gay circle explain to his dying friend’s mother the travails of coming to terms with unconventional sexuality in a Society which largely refuses to recognise certain facts, and how humour can be a tool to cope but ultimately also be a means of unhealthy repression.


This is a triumph, a book that flows at a wholly natural pace unravelling complex emotions in such a simple way. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a long while.


The Blackwater Lightship reminded me of what a great author Colm Toibin is. I read much of his stuff in the mid ‘Nineties which included the non fiction tour de force In Bad Blood: A Walk Along the Irish Border where he demonstrated real understanding of the roots of the conflict, and the Story of the Night which was the first major Irish novel to discuss gay issues, but in a context where it’s the relationships and not the activity itself that counts.




About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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