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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love, Family, AIDS and Dysfunction
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...
Published on July 7, 2004 by prisrob

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 2.5 stars: Backstory with little present to place it in
Helen lives a happy life in a village in Ireland. She is devoted to her sons and husband and enjoys her job as principal of a local school. One day, unexpectedly, she is confronted with the news that her beloved brother Declan has contracted AIDS. She gathers with two of his friends, her grandmother and her estranged mother to spend some time with him in his final...
Published on July 21, 2008 by Harley


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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love, Family, AIDS and Dysfunction, July 7, 2004
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This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (Paperback)
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. Lily, the mom as a child; Helen and Declan when they father got sick and died and mom left them, or abandoned them, as Helen and Declan remember. This dysfunctional family now has a chance to reclaim their lost relationships. Paul and Larry are gay, as is Declan, and as they reveal their lives, the lives of the others come into semblance. The living and the dying , the coming and the going, the new and the old all take on extra meaning.
Colm Toibin has written a marvelous study of a family entwined in the everyday business of living and dying in his book "The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel". The relationships in this family are not unusual, but so well written in such a cleverly calm but studied manner. Colm Toibin's knowledge of the clinical process of AIDS is well revealed and accurate. You feel like you are in the midst of Declan's fevers and
pain and suffering. The judgment of being Gay and having AIDS in the 90's is explored and well written. This is a book of the ages- always timely, relationships explored, the pain and suffering of lost time with family well documented. A novel to learn from. Colm Toibin was on the short list for the Booker prize for
this novel. He is an author to be recommended- a writer of fabulous ability- to be enjoyed and thought about for days after the novel is finished. prisrob
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quietly sensitive and enduring piece of work, July 17, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (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
4.0 out of 5 stars Prepared to be amazed......., July 31, 2000
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Touching, March 17, 2004
By 
Hilde Bygdevoll (Stavanger, Norway) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (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. She is an amazingly strong and strong willed woman. I love how she takes a taxi to town every Wednesday to go shopping, and do her things. I just fell in love with her. My favorite scenes from the book is when Paul is `having a go' at Lily for not understanding anything - and Dora is on the sideline cheering for Paul. The second scene is when Larry is teaching Dora to drive. Absolutely fantastic!! The ending was lovely too, without being clichéd and predictable or sappy for that matter.
The author has an impressive ability to superbly develop characters. His writing style is in many ways similar to Hemingway, sparse but yet luminous. With "The Blackwater Lightship" Colm Tóibín has written a beautiful book. It's one of the finest explorations of a dysfunctional family I've come across. Highly recommended.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fine family drama - well told, May 15, 2005
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This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (Paperback)
Beautifully written, emotionally effecting novel about an estranged family brought together by a young man dying of AIDS - a brother, son and grandson of three strong willed women. They gather at his grandmother's seaside home with two of his gay friends. What I especially liked about this novel was that it was never predictable. Just when you thought you had it all figured out the author would take you in an alternate direction. I also liked the fact that the obvious was never overstated. None of these characters is without sin. They have been judgmental and unforgiving and each has made mistakes that have been blown out of all proportion. Is there reconciliation? Is everything wrapped up neat and pretty at the end of the book? Yes and no. You feel that progress has been made. Beacuse certain things have gone either unsaid or unresolved, I feel like these characters are still alive out there struggling to understand one another and maybe forgive if not absolve one another. A very strong novel.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Startling Gem Of A Novel On A Family Coping With AIDS, August 26, 2002
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (Paperback)
Quite simply, Colm Toibin's "The Blackwater Lightship" is the finest novel or memoir I've read by a critically acclaimed Irish or Irish-American author. He has a subtle, magical way with prose that will keep you thinking about the tale long after you've finished reading it. I am not surprised that this splendid little novel was short-listed for the British Booker Prize. It's one of the finest explorations of a dysfunctional family I've come across. I strongly commend Toibin for having the determination and talent to write well about AIDS, and making it an important, and sympathetic, part of this tale.
"The Blackwater Lightship" is primarily about Helen and how she becomes emotionally attached again to her mother Lily, when they are confronted with the news that her brother Declan is dying from AIDS. The story moves swiftly from Declan's hospital ward in Dublin to the seaside home of Lily's mother Dora, so Declan can enjoy one last glimpse of the sea. The tale also revolves around Declan's two male friends and their relationship with his sister, mother and grandmother.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 2.5 stars: Backstory with little present to place it in, July 21, 2008
By 
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel (Paperback)
Helen lives a happy life in a village in Ireland. She is devoted to her sons and husband and enjoys her job as principal of a local school. One day, unexpectedly, she is confronted with the news that her beloved brother Declan has contracted AIDS. She gathers with two of his friends, her grandmother and her estranged mother to spend some time with him in his final days.

I was drawn to this book because I am fascinated by stories about ordinary people in moments of vulnerability and change (I'm thinking Carver, Hempel, Dubus etc.), however The Blackwater Lightship is a competent novel and little more. Toibin obviously has a good understanding of family dynamics, however there are no moments of catharsis or great insight. Perhaps this is due to the fact that none of the characters are particularly great thinkers and the novel is primarily concerned with their thoughts. In a particularly contrived chapter, a sleepless night is used as an opportunity to give a substantial portion of Helen's backstory because this is what Helen is thinking about. This instance of backstory - as all others - is presented without benefit of foresight afforded by retrospection, but as a matter-of-fact exposition regarding what happened. Other main characters have their pasts detailed through a single instance of extensive dialogue with Helen at various opportunistic points throughout the book. I found this a very obvious, predictable and ultimately unrealistic mechanic, however Toibin seemed intent on depriving the characters of whatever sense of intrigue they may have embodied had their pasts not been artlessly exposed.

One of the more interesting scenes in the novel finds Declan sitting intently at a dinner table, staring motionlessly while all those around him try to accommodate his mood. It is interesting because it is one of the very few instances in which Toibin allows his reader to wonder and to use their own experience to guess as to what is taking place. All too often he insists on telling us what is occurring and what we should think about it, leaving no room for the reader to relate to the narrative or insert themself into it. He does this by adopting an authoritative third-person perspective. As with any novel we are free to like or dislike its characters, agree or disagree with them, however the aforementioned shallowness of thought makes this a difficult process to pursue with any confidence. Even though this is a novel that deals with life, death and the intangible machinations of human relationships Helen is not so much a poor philosopher as she is not a philosopher at all. Toibin tells us what happened and Helen tells us what she thinks of it, however the abstract process connecting event to conclusion is never so much as brushed. This makes Helen an unquestionable arbiter of truth for the purposes of the novel, which is a very poor decision on Toibin's behalf, as this is a power that should not be vested in any character.

All of this basically results in the annulment of the importance of the present, as the present becomes only a conduit for the past. Declan is not so much a character as he is an artificial rallying point for what the book's blurb itself so helpfully informed me are "six [people], from different generations and with different beliefs" that "are forced to listen to each other and come to terms with each other" and it really is as contrived as it sounds. There is no real emotional gravity attached to Declan's suffering, because even though it constitutes the rallying call, the focus of the book is on the minor tensions that exist between the people around him. In the hands of a writer like William Faulkner (just as a for instance) this would not be a problem as he has the skill to navigate these tensions and use them to provide profound insight into humanity, however Colm Toibin is not William Faulkner, and The Blackwater Lightship is not As I Lay Dying.

Toibin's prose is unremarkable with little, if any distinctive stylistic idiosyncrasies. He tells his story clearly - perhaps too clearly - however I didn't find myself very much drawn into it. His total lack of effort to conceal his narrative devices for backstory and the way he made it clear when he was speaking as a storyteller and when Helen was thinking as a character kept me constantly aware that I was just reading a book, which is hardly a glowing endorsement for a piece of literature. If you want to read an easy story with minimum challenge or investment expected of its reader, this is for you, however if you are after something that has the philosophical insight to back up its themes, there are a veritable overflow of superior writers further up the ladder.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An intense exploration of the ties that bind., September 3, 2005
Colm Toibin cuts straight to the heart in this sensitive novel of an independent daughter, long estranged from her overly controlling mother, and their attempt to reach some sort of understanding and level of communication. Daughter Helen and mother Lily are drawn to the neutral ground of Helen's grandmother's house in rural Ireland when Helen's brother Declan is gravely ill with AIDS and wants to return to the strand for a last look at the sea.

Toibin is both straightforward and graphic in describing Declan's declining health and completely open in describing the romantic relationships of Paul and Larry, Declan's two gay friends who are also attending him at the cottage in Cush. But the focus of the story remains squarely on Helen and Lily and their long estrangement, so intense that Lily was never invited to attend Helen's wedding and, after seven years, still has not seen her grandchildren. In the crucible of Declan's sick room, those attending him are painfully aware of the tenuousness of life, and as they reach out to him with love, they share many of their innermost feelings and the stories that have shaped their lives.

In prose that is so simple and so controlled one wonders how it can possibly carry the weight of these emotion packed scenes, Toibin empathizes with Helen, a daughter whose mother failed to meet her emotional needs when she was a child, and then tried to overpower and control her when she became strong enough to stand on her own. At the same time, he explores Lily's competing needs and the limitations imposed on her by her husband's early death and her need to support her family both financially and physically.

The obvious symbolism of the lightship, the wave-washed strand, and the eroding headland on which the grandmother's cottage perches adds weight and universality to the crises facing the participants in this intense and poignant domestic drama. The involved reader will come away with new understandings of the need for connection, the essence of compassion, and the full meaning of love as the characters in this thematically complete novel find their resolutions. Mary Whipple
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A poignant, eloquent representation of repressed emotions, September 12, 2000
Colm Toibin's novels powerfully depict human emotions in an eloquent and understated fashion. This is perhaps the best of his four novels.
The story is melancholy, yet besides the sadness underlying the detachment and anger of the protagonist, Helen, one develops a sense of admiration for her fortitude, resistence to pain, pragmatism and insightfulness. The Blackwater Lightship is a complex web of family relationships which describes how often only a crisis can enable relatives to surmount the bitterness and distrust arising from loss and betrayal.
As Toibin's most recent previos novel dealt with gay men confronting aids, one might initially assume that this novel is of a similar focus as the circumstance which pulls together the polarized characters is the imminent death of a brother, son, and grandson from aids. However, the story is written from the perspective of a strong woman, and the tragedy of her brother's death provides the catalyst for confronting her alienation from her mother and grandmother in order to embrace them into the nuclear family of her husband and two sons.
A dignified emotionally touching novel, its power arising from powerful insights and sparing prose.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Colm Toibin's New Novel a Winner, February 22, 2001
By 
Frank Perry (Seattle, WA USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Irish writer Colm Toibin's new novel is a further proof that he is one of the most promising new novelists writing today. This is essentially the story of three very strong, successful, independent women in conflict with one another. Helen has been estranged from her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora for nearly ten years. Each of the three harbor resentments for the other two. But suddenly a stranger appears at Helen's doorstep to announce that her younger brother Declan, a sunny golden boy beloved by all three women as brother, son, and grandson, is deathly ill and in the hospital. Declan wants to see his sister right away. This sets in motion the central conflict of the novel.
When she arrives at the hospital, she finds that Declan is dying a horrible, morbid death and that he wants Helen to tell their mother, Lily, of his illness. He also wants to go to the home of Granny who lives in a house by the seaside. It is there that he wants to die. But this house is also the setting of much of Helen's childhood resentments against and the disappointments in both her mother and her grandmother. This is also where the "Blackwater Lightship" of the title is located. However she feels, now Helen must make contact with the mother and grandmother she resents so much. Thrown into the mix are two friends of Declan, Paul and Larry, two men who have selflessly cared for their friend the past year or so. They arrive at the seaside house to help care for Declan but are resented to different degrees by all three women.
In less skillful hands, this story of terrible suffering, gory death and family conflict could have made a terribly depressing novel, one I may not have been able to finish. But Colm Toibin writes with such skill that the story plays out as a revelation of human conflict, disappointment, and finally comes to a peaceful understanding in the ultimate tragedy. While it is a short book and an easy read, it will not leave you unmoved.
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The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel
The Blackwater Lightship: A Novel by Colm Toibin (Paperback - June 5, 2001)
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