In the opening pages of The Blackwater Lightship
, a stranger drives up to Helen O'Doherty's Dublin house to tell her that her brother Declan is in the hospital and needs to see her. At his request, she joins him at the creepy seaside house of their grandmother--where, as children, they awaited news of their dying father. What's more, they're not the only guests. Paul and Larry, friends of Declan who have known about his HIV diagnosis far longer than his family, are the next to arrive. And then comes Helen's estranged mother Lily, whom she hasn't seen in years. Still angry over the emotional abandonment she suffered during her youth, Helen had refused even to invite Lily to her wedding. Now she must come to terms not only with the imminent death of her beloved brother but also with her mother and grandmother--all at once.
Colm Tóibín (The Story of the Night) delivers this unsentimental account of a troubled family in spare but suggestive language. He does allow his characters a few high-spirited remarks and the occasional outburst. Otherwise, though, he keeps his tone even, allowing for the perfect integration of a light, unforced symbolism. For Lily, broken hopes and dreams are bound up with the Blackwater Lightship, one of two lighthouses that once stood in the Irish Sea near Ballyconnigar. As a child, she believed that these would always be there:
Tuskar was a man and the Blackwater Lightship was a woman and they were both sending signals to each other and to other lighthouses, like mating calls. He was forceful and strong and she was weaker but more constant, and sometimes she began to shine her light before darkness had really fallen.
For Helen, on the other hand, it was the house itself that prompted her deepest, happiest fantasies. But now Lily has sold the property and shattered Helen's dream that "it would be her refuge, and that her mother, despite everything, would be there for her and would take her in and shelter her and protect her. She had never entertained this thought before; now, she knew that it was irrational and groundless, but nonetheless ... she knew that it was real and it explained everything." What Declan has done by drawing them all together at Granny's house is to enact this potent, poignant fantasy. Whether it has the power to reconstruct his family is another matter, but in any case, The Blackwater Lightship
remains a gripping narrative, deftly delivered by a master storyteller. --Regina Marler
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From Publishers Weekly
One of the young Turks of Irish fiction (The Heather Blazing; The Story of the Night) again examines themes of loss and death in a novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In clipped, stripped-down prose, T?ib!n unfolds the family saga of Helen, mother Lily and grandmother Dora, three generations of women whose estrangement is ended by the grief they share. Helen's brother, Declan, is dying of AIDS. Helen receives the news of Declan's illness from Paul, her brother's best friend. Unlike her mother or grandmother, Helen has known for years that Declan is gay, but he has kept his illness a secret, even from her. Declan sends Paul to fetch Helen to the hospital, where he asks her to tell their mother and grandmother about his condition. Declan wants them all to spend a few days together at Granny's seaside house in Cush, Wexford. Years ago, Declan and Helen stayed there while Lily attended to their father, who was dying in a hospital in Dublin. Larry, another friend, completes the cast of characters surrounding Declan during his decline. T?ib!n has not written a "dying of AIDS" story here. Instead, by focusing on the relationships of those around Declan, he has created a delicately powerful story of a family's failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need. The novel does not take a flamboyant tone, but instead keeps faith with the quiet power of everyday life to imbue its straightforward prose with the essence of drama. (Aug.)
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