The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Mothers and daughters…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the blackwater lightshipHelen has had a strained relationship with her mother Lily and grandmother Dora for years. But now Helen’s brother Declan is dying of AIDS, and the three women are forced to come together for his sake. At Declan’s request, they all go together to spend some time at Dora’s home, resurrecting unhappy memories of the time Helen and Declan lived there as children, while Lily was in Dublin looking after their dying father.

Tóibín’s writing throughout is spare and beautifully controlled, always giving the impression of simplicity and integrity. He paints a very convincing picture of the small village of Blackwater, old-fashioned and conservative, also slowly dying as erosion from the sea gradually destroys the houses built on the coast. There’s no real plot; this is a study of the three generations of women, forced together physically by a shared grief but emotionally separate. And there’s a secondary strand as Declan’s illness allows Tóibín to look at attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland in the ‘90s, through the reactions of the three generations of his family to his two friends who have come to stay with him. The book is told in the third person from Helen’s viewpoint and what we get to know about the other characters comes through that filter, and through the many conversations that take place as the long days and wakeful nights pass. As old resentments come to the surface, Tóibín takes no sides and apportions no blame, nor does he offer any easy resolutions.

“Imaginings and resonances and pain and small longings and prejudices. They meant nothing against the resolute hardness of the sea…It might have been better, she felt, if there had never been people, if this turning of the world, and the glistening sea, and the morning breeze happened without witnesses, without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love.”

I’ve been reading Tóibín backwards in time, my first introduction to him having been the gut-wrenching and amazingly powerful The Testament of Mary (which I’m delighted to see on the Booker longlist). In this book, I can clearly see the potential that he fulfilled in the later one, but I found this book curiously cold. Although we learn a little about Declan’s friends, Declan himself remains underdeveloped – he’s really little more than a catalyst to bring the women together. The contrast of the emotional openness and competence of Declan’s friends with the frosty reserve and inadequacy of the women was, I felt, over-stated and a little too simplistic to be truly convincing.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

The characterisation of the women is much deeper and their conversations and interactions ring entirely true. However, as we slowly learn what is at the root of the tensions amongst them, the reasons don’t seem to sufficiently explain Helen’s bitterness, and as a result she comes over as a rather selfish and unforgiving person, still focussed on her own childhood resentments and having learned very little from her own experiences of love and motherhood. And this, I think, is the reason that the book didn’t have quite the same emotional impact in the end as either Testament of Mary or to a lesser degree Brooklyn.

Overall, though, the themes of grief and family, the sense of place and time and the intimacy of the characterisation are all hallmarks of Tóibín’s work which, combined with the quality of the writing, make this an insightful and compelling read; and, despite my reservations around the emotional depth of the book, one that I would highly recommend.

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20 thoughts on “The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

  1. Thanks for the excellent review. It sounds as though this one really explores family issues in a sensitive way, and any novel that does an effective job at evoking time and place rates highly with me.


    • Thanks, Margot! Toibin is wonderful at families, especially girls and women. Definitely one of my favourite authors now and I’m really hoping he takes the Booker this year.


    • Usually quite emotionally harrowing, especially his most recent one The Testament of Mary. But I find him wonderfully insightful – and they are beautifully written.


  2. This was the first of Tóibín’s works that I read and I remember being being held in a quiet world of sorrow throughout. Looking back, I think you’re right that there is more emotional involvement in the later work but this was the book that introduced me to this incredible writer and for that I will be forever grateful.


    • I suspect reading them in reverse is doing no favours to the earlier works. I can’t help making comparisons to how Testament made me feel – it totally blew me away. And although I thought the ending of Brooklyn was a bit weak, I found it a truly emotional experience – especially the central death/grief element. In this one, I found both Dora and Lily beautifully drawn characters, but the coldness of Helen stopped it just short of real emotional involvement for me.


  3. Wowawee, you got through this one quick! I can only imagine BigSister’s speed! Goodness…

    Is it an interesting read?

    (I’m still debating with myself whose picture I’d rather see in a book. His or Grisham’s?)


    • 600 words of review and you ask if it’s interesting? Did you fall asleep before you got to the end?? 😉

      It’s quite a short one – one of the joys of Toibin is that they’re never huge bricks. Not at all in the class of Ben Hur…(I wonder if it was the weight of the book that stretched his arms so…)

      You realise when you finish your book, you’ll need to provide an author pic for my review? 😉


      • 🙂 See how you laugh the professor to scorn?

        I believe that FF finds mostly all books interesting (even the Shrubios), but the professor is easily bored. A book like that might just well bore the professor even if it had such a stellar review!

        You know, it might have been the book. I bet the purple ink made it weigh more too.

        But what if I don’t take an author pic?


        • Never! I may chuckle affectionately from time to time though… 😉

          Well, I do find most books I read interesting, because I don’t read books that I think will bore me – no romances, no fantasy, and very little sci-fi will make it’s way onto this blog. But I suspect you probably wouldn’t find this one particularly interesting.

          No pic – no review!


  4. I appreciate how well-rounded your reviews are. Very fair. Never mean-spirited at all.

    It’s interesting to see how a writer develops over time. And after listening to Amy Tan and Richard Ford talk about their earlier works as if they were written by other people, I dare say that many an author would like to reclaim works they no longer recognize as their own.


    • Thanks, Jilanne!

      It is interesting and must be a strange feeling. Most of us (I suspect) feel as if we are today what we’ve always been, but authors leave an imprint of what they were at different stages of their lives, so unlike the rest of us must be able to make comparisons. I think I’d find that made me quite introspective, perhaps, and I’m not sure I’d find it altogether comfortable.


  5. I read this when it came out. I do agree with you about Toibin’s development as an author – I’m glad that I have read him more-or-less in order.


    • It’s always the problem if you work backwards. It’s unfair to compare his early self to his later self, I suppose, but difficult to avoid when you read them the wrong way round.


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