By Joseph Hurley
THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP, By Colm Tóibín. Simon & Schuster. $24.
In "The Blackwater Lightship," Wexford-born novelist Colm Tóibín’s fourth work of fiction, a complicated well-educated Irish family is forced to face up to the fact that one of its members has contracted AIDS.
In the case of Tóibín’s strong, direct volume, which was short-listed for England’s Booker Prize this past season, the time is the early 1990s, and the stricken family is dominated by three generations of strong-willed women, individuals who have been more or less estranged from one another for about a decade.
Helen, contentedly married to Hugh O’Doherty, and the mother of two boys, Cathal and Manus, is the focus of the book, and it is her brother, Declan, three years younger than she is, who is the AIDS victim.
She learns of his illness when Paul, one of Declan’s friends, drives to the O’Doherty house and suggests that she accompany him immediately to the Dublin hospital where her brother is a patient. Helen, a school principal, has been interviewing young teachers looking for jobs, and at first she mistakes Paul for a certain type of applicant, an example of a cocky breed she particularly dislikes.
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It will fall to Helen to inform her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora, of Declan’s hopeless situation and, in the course of doing so she will forge a sort of peace with two fairly difficult women.
One of the strengths of Tóibín’s excellent writing lies in its simplicity and in the accuracy of its detail. He gives Helen’s family the hometown of Enniscorthy, the Wexford village where his own family has lived and taught for generations.
It comes, therefore, as no surprise that every detail of Helen’s youth, and her upbringing alongside Declan, rings achingly true, just as does every street name, the description of every shop and its shopkeeper, as the grief-stricken woman relives her childhood.
"The Blackwater Lightship" begins with a casual party Helen and Hugh throw just before the latter takes his sons away for a brief vacation. The members of this estranged, perhaps even dysfunctional family experience denial, rage, compassion and the need for mutual support in the course of coming to grips with the harsh reality of Declan’s tragic situation. Not so surprisingly, they reach a kind of truce in the hostilities which have kept them apart for a decade or more. But there are no miracle cures for the wounds these women have inflicted upon each other, just as there is no "magic bullet" which will make Declan strong and well again.
It is to Tóibín’s credit that he wrote no miracles. Helen, Lily and Dora are the same women on page 272, as the book winds up, as they were in the early chapters in which he introduced them.
"The Blackwater Lightship" has been described as "a novel about the incomparable capacity of stories to heal the deepest wounds." It has also been termed a novel "about morals and manners," and while it might be difficult to name a novel which, on some level or other, is not about morals and manners, the phrase is perhaps particularly applicable to Tóibín’s writing, since he is so careful about his characters’ behavior, especially with regard to one another, and because he is so sensitive and accurate an observer.
Declan expresses a desire to leave the hospital and to be taken to the weathered old seaside home of his grandmother, Dora. Helen sets up a form of hospice in the old woman’s home in Cush, which a group composed of the family women, plus Paul, and Larry, an architect and friend, whose presence Declan has requested.
As her brother sickens and weakens, Helen forms a bond with Paul, the first of her brother’s friends she’d met, and whom she had misunderstood and initially disliked.
This is pretty much where the healing function performed by the exchange of stories comes in. Paul tells her his life history in great, candid detail, and Helen responds, at first, with something well short of complete honesty, an action she regrets and which she finally succeeds in rectifying.
Among the grievances Helen attempts to sort out where her mother, Lily, is the fact that she failed to invite her to her wedding to Hugh, the Donegal man she loves. She does not, however, regret her actions.
Helen learns a good deal about solitude when she discovers that neither Paul nor Larry, though both are gay men, was what she calls Declan’s "partner," and that her beloved brother had spent the bulk of his adult life alone, without the support of genuinely close relationships.
Tóibín renders Declan’s declining health and his final days on earth in genuinely agonizing detail, and there will probably be readers for whom certain pages are simply too much to bear, and who will skim sections late in the book. If they do, however, they will be missing one of Ireland’s most wrenchingly honest and least self-protective writers at the absolute top of his form.
"The Blackwater Lightship" is an entirely unforgettable work, one of which readers may well find themselves returning in times of personal loss and grief. In this respect, Tóibín’s book bears a certain resemblance to James Agee’s great American novel, "A Death in the Family," and that is very high praise indeed.