Mothers and daughters…
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Helen 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.
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.