Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

The Blackwater Lightship Book Review The Blackwater Lightship [1999] – ★★★1/2

In 1999, Paul Binding from The Independent on Sunday wrote that “we shall be reading and living with The Blackwater Lightship in twenty years”. Twenty years have now passed, and, this year, The Blackwater Lightship by Irish author Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn [2009]) is twenty years old. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to review this book that was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. In this story, three generations of women (daughter Helen, mother Lily and grandmother Dora) come together to try to cement their uneasy relationships with each other after Helen’s brother Declan is taken gravely ill as a result of his AIDS diagnosis. Tóibín makes his writing effortlessly beautiful, and there is a special sense of sadness and a desire for redemption permeating this story, with the characters trying hard to accept and forgive each other while they remain united in their shared tragedy. However, The Blackwater Lightship is still rather bland and can be described as “playing it safe”, sometimes veering off from the main drama into other topics (changing societal views on homosexuality and difficulty of finding romance) and according its secondary characters (Declan’s friends) an undeserved place in the story. 

The novel begins by focusing on Helen, who raises her two small sons with her husband Hugh in Ireland. Helen’s stable life is turned upside down when she receives shocking news about her brother Declan. Helen’s brother Declan, the favourite in the family, is dying from AIDS-related complications and is on the brink of death. Before Helen rushes to his bedside, she has one other task to accomplish: to give this sad news to her mother Lily and her grandmother Dora. Helen’s reunion with her emotionally-distant mother Lily promises to be particularly uncomfortable since the two do not get on, and, as the family gathers around Declan and tries to make his last days comfortable, they also have to finally confront their feelings and previous grievances about each other. The point here is that only something as drastic as a sure expectation of one beloved’s death must occur before family members start to reconsider their positions in life and realise what is really important.

The Blackwater Lightship explores grief, inability of family members to understand and reconnect with each other, and the consequences of impressions formed during childhood (certain negative childhood memories may then dictate perceptions and actions in one’s adult life). Tóibín makes perceptive observations on the nature of a mother-daughter relationship, and his family relationships and affairs in the story seem very realistic. In the story, Helen goes back in time in her memory to when she and her brother Declan were small children and tries to make sense of her mother’s behaviour at that time, especially of her emotional coldness after the death of Helen and Declan’s father. In this way, the story explores interestingly the negative consequences of “bottled emotions” since a child is often very sensitive to his immediate environment and to the actions of his or her parents, remembering certain incidents vividly for the rest of their lives, especially if those incidents involved being abandoned by a parent at certain point (or merely the impression of being abandoned/”betrayed”). In this vein, the novel makes an indirect point that no matter what age we are, our mothers remain our mothers and will forever be our mothers, with us forming even if subconscious desires to seek their comfort, love and approval.

I value the significance of highlighting the AIDS epidemic and the importance of including LGBT characters in the story, but some of the author’s points on the difficulty of finding LGBT partners and on various misunderstandings concerning homosexual relationships still feel a little out of place in this drama of women who try to understand each other. This story of learning to accept others could even be shorter than its 272 pages. At times there is this feeling that what the main female characters needed to be reconciled with each other was not a tragedy, but simply an outsider who was willing to listen to them. For this purpose, Tóibín uses Declan’s friends Paul and Larry, who function as “tools” in the story to help other characters to pour their hearts out.

The Blackwater Lightship is a quiet, slow-moving novel often lacking in dynamism and filled with memories. Though beautifully-written with a strong sense of place and insights into how people try to make peace with their past and present situations, it is also far from being an entirely satisfying novel, and will probably be remembered more for certain senses it evokes, rather than for its story or characters.


10 thoughts on “Review: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

  1. I do like the premise of this one – exploring the family dynamics on the back of a tragic event can be really interesting. Too bad the end result came out a bit bland. Interesting about AIDS, I wonder if that was very much a 90’s topic. Can’t remember having read about it in more recent years.

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    1. I agree, the premise is interesting. It actually reminded me strongly of a French play “It’s Only the End of the World” [1990] by Jean-Luc Lagarce. There, one character, Louis, also returns to his family to announce his terminal illness, and there is a lot of family members’ interaction. And, yeah, I guess it is a 1990s topic – perhaps now this story would have been written in a way that suggests a character is dying from cancer. Come to think of it, the author’s other point in “The Blackwater Lightship” was to emphasise the rights of LGBT people to live full and happy lives.

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  2. I always think of this one as a kind of loose trilogy with Brooklyn and Nora Webster – together they kind of show the changing place of women in society of Ireland over the later twentieth century. But I thought this was by far the weakest of the three – perhaps trying too hard to make “points”.

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