Colm Toíbín’s 1999 novel The Blackwater Lightship opens with Helen preparing for a party she and her husband Hugh are giving together. During the course of the evening, as she observes the dynamics of the party, she reflects on her life with him and her two sons, and the ways she keeps herself aloof from them:
She stood there and thought about Hugh: how easygoing he was and consistent, how modest and decent. And she wondered — as she often did in moments like this — why he had wanted her, why he needed someone who had none of his virtues, and she felt suddenly distant from him. She could never let him know the constant daily urge to resist him, keep him at bay, and the struggle to overcome these urges, in which she often failed.
The following day, Helen’s brother Declan sends one of his friends to tell her two shocking pieces of news that he’s been withholding: he is gay, and he’s gravely ill with AIDS. He wants her to tell their estranged mother the news he couldn’t share himself.
The book follows this family — Helen, Declan, their mother, and their grandmother — as they negotiate Declan’s illness. Two of Declan’s friends, Paul and Larry, join the family at the grandmother’s tiny, remote cottage by the sea, washed by the intermittent light of a lighthouse, and this heterogenous group must find ways to move around the barriers that exist between all of them.
Right away, Toíbín gets rid of some of the clichés in the emotional landscape. When Helen breaks the news to her grandmother, for instance, there are no recriminations about Declan’s orientation and no disgust about his illness.
In the corner of the kitchen sat a huge television; her grandmother had access to all the English channels as well as the Irish ones. She watched documentaries and late-night films and prided herself on being well-informed about modern subjects. She knew about AIDS and the search for a cure and the long illnesses. “There’s nothing can be done, Helen, so,” she said. “Nothing can be done. It was the same years ago with your father’s cancer. There was nothing the doctors could do. And poor Declan’s only just starting his life.”
This scene sets up a later scene in which Helen remembers her grandmother watching the Late Late Show, and shouting encouragement at church reformers and women’s rights supporters. It’s not that there are no prejudices here, it’s that Toíbín knows his world, and the tangle that love, compassion, knowledge and prejudice really make in real human beings.
The novel is a remarkable blend of sorrow and joy. Helen is constantly anxious about her brother, who is in pain and extremely ill. She’s resentful of her mother, even though Declan clearly wants her presence, and she’s uncomfortable with her mother’s gauche and often selfish attempts at reconciliation. But she is also doing the difficult work of going back through her own memories and re-evaluating them, trying to remember, despite her reluctance, whether she’d judged her mother fairly when she was a child and a young woman.
And in between these family dynamics, there are scenes of touching beauty and of humor. The stiff and upright Paul tells Helen the story of how he and his partner François met and how they married, and it’s a story of enormous tenderness and generosity. (I’d quote it, or even quote from it, but you really should read the whole thing.) Everyone conspires to keep Helen’s grandmother’s nosy neighbors from finding out that she has a house full of gay men, with wryly funny results. Yet every time there’s laughter, or joy, there’s the memory behind it that Declan is dying. It’s the Blackwater Lightship — the name of the lighthouse — washing over the scene, providing the road to safety, but emphasizing the essential darkness of the night.
This was a very beautiful novel. I’ve never read anything by Toíbín before, but I was moved and impressed, and I look forward to reading more.