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The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel Paperback – June 5, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed edition (June 5, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743203313
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743203319
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,907 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Colm Toibin is the author of four previous novels, The South, The Heather Blazing, The Story of the Night, and The Blackwater Lightship, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. He lives in Dublin.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By prisrob TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 7, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Helen O'Doherty lives in Dublin with her husband and two sons. She is a school principal and set with her life. She is happy and even though she may be a bit more reserved in her marriage than her husband would like, all seems well. When school is over she and her hubby plan a large party in their new home to celebrate. Her husband and children will go the next day to visit relatives, and Helen will follow when she clears up her end of school issues. Helen worries about her life and her children. Are they too needy? Is it right that the youngest needs his parents so thoroughly? Helen seems to be a thoroughly modern woman of the 90's- ready to live her life. Helen's family is off and she is ready to go to school when a friend of her brother, Declan, arrives to tell her Declan is seriously ill and needs to see her. And so it goes.. Paul, Declan's friend tells her he has AIDS and has been ill for quite a while. He does not have a serious relationship right now, and he does need a place to go to recuperate. It is decided by Declan that he wants to go to Grandmother's house, but first, would Helen tell Grandmother and mom, Lily about his disease?
No small deed is this one...Helen has had an on -again off-again relationship with her mother and grandmother for years. In fact, she has only seen them at Christmas time, but neither was invited to her wedding nor have they met her family or children. How will she tell them, what will they say and how will they react? Oh, no, what to do...
Mom- Lily, Helen, Paul and Larry, Declan's friends all move into grandmother's house in a desolate spot on the ocean near the Blackwater Lightship. This place and house has particular meaning to the family-they were brought up here.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 17, 2001
Format: Paperback
Colm Toibin's "Blackwater Lightship" is arguably the dark horse in this year's Booker Prize race. The three generation family drama at the heart of this deceptively slight novel may not set any sparks flying but chances are you'd still be thinking of it long after the story has ended and settled into a warm afterglow. Toibin is an unflashy writer. He aims straight for your heart and succeeds in a disarmingly off-the-cuff way. The opening chapters have a luminous quality about them that sets the tone for Helen's subsequent encounter with her mother (Lily) and grandmother (Dora). The event that brings three generations of feuding mothers and daughters together is Declan's terminal illness from AIDS. In caring for and trying to make peace with the dying Declan, they resolve their differences with each other in a chillingly unsentimental and cold eyed manner. Ironically, the characterisation of the three women at the centre of Toibin's novel are a little weak and indistinct compared to Paul and Larry (Declan's friends) who spring to life as the story unfolds. Declan, however, remains little more than a catalyst. His part is curiously underwritten. Tuskar Rock and Blackwater Lightship, two lighthouses out at sea, one still working, the other not, are deeply symbolic of the choices facing the feuding family members. They can either decide to close the chapter and get on with their lives or continue to nurse their wounds privately and watch them fester. The recurring image of the landslide eating into their neighbour's house is also a powerful metaphor for the corrosion of family relationships. "Blackwater Lightship" is a sensitive and quietly enduring piece of work that will surely touch you. The final chapters including an unlikely one with Helen and Paul baring their souls to each other, are absolutely devastating. This is literary fiction of the finest quality that deserves to be read. Not to be missed.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Stacey on July 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This was my first amble into the world of Colm Toibin and it was a plesent surprise. Faced with a less than thrilling title and grey cover, I didnt think it would make my heart ring.
Colm has created a book that I like to call a touch and smell book. From the opening I can feel the home and emotions like they are my own. From the warmth of the traditional Irish party to the love Lilly feels for her childern and husband, all so very real. Not the romantic view of family love but the true nature of love. Even Lillys estranged mother is not painted as a black character here. The complexity of the mother daughter relationship is so well written that one wonders if a male writer has ever painted this portraite so well?
Her brother is dying of AIDS but this is not the issue here. The issue is he is dying, for anyone who has ever coped with losing a loved one this drives into the very heart. If you are a wife, a mother a husband or a lover, or indeed just a man or woman who has loved, this book is one you take with you. Enjoy
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Hilde Bygdevoll on March 17, 2004
Format: Paperback
I am part of a newly started book club. The novel "The Blackwater lightship" by Colm Tóibín (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) was chosen as the second book to read (my first - as I have just joined the club). The number of girls attending our dinners vary between 3 and 12, all Australian but me. As I joined late, my friend Rachael had already finished the book. She did not care too much for it, so I started out slightly biased to the book. But that quickly changed, and I hadn't read too many pages before I emailed Rachael and said "I really like this book!!"..
The story is set in Ireland in the early 1990'ies, and it starts as a stranger comes to Helen O'Doherty's house to tell her that her brother, Declan, is dying of AIDS. Helen rushes to visits Declan in the hospital in Dublin. Declan tells her that he would like to leave the hospital and spend some time at his grandmother's house by the sea. Helen and Declan spent a lot of time at their grandparent's house as children, but Helen worries that a dying grandson will be to much for their aging grandmother. Nevertheless, they go there, and they all end up living at Dora's place: Declan, Helen, Lily, and two of Declan's friends; Paul and Larry.
Helen and her mother Lily have a very distant and (on the surface of things) unemotional relationship. It really impressed me that a man has with such amazing authenticity been able to capture this complex mother-daughter relationship.
Although Declan is the one who is dying, the book is first and foremost about Helen and how she accepts and understand the past, forgives what was to forgive, and how she grow to be emotionally attached again to her mother Lily.
My favorite character from the book is by far the grandmother, Dora.
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