Saturday, February 17, 2007

A dark Lightship

To the bookcase for Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship, the beautifully-written novel of a family in Ireland coming to terms with their difficult relationships as a beloved son is dying of Aids.

The novel opens with a lively, music-infused party at which Helen, a successful head-teacher and mother of a happy, conventional family, plays slightly reluctant hostess to her husband's circle. The next morning, one of her brother's friends comes to tell her that Declan is in a Dublin hospital and wants to see her. Declan asks Helen to tell their mother, a successful businesswoman but a failure in a maternal role, and grandmother about him, and to arrange for him to stay with their grandmother for a few days, as a respite from the hospital and to draw comfort from childhood memories there.

Six end up at his grandmother's house, which sits by the edge of a cliff in Cush, on the south-east coast of Ireland: Helen and Declan; their mother, Lily; her mother, Dora; and Declan's friends Paul, a reserved bureaucrat, and Larry, a gregarious architect. The body of the book covers their week by the coast, as Declan grows sicker and all six of them try to resolve the tangled strings which bind them together.

Helen's party sets up a series of contradictions which run through the book. At a joyous gathering, Helen is uneasy in her own home, even with her husband and children, as she will later be with her family in Cush, while the party is a happy climax inverted: everything goes downhill afterwards, and the rest of the novel - quiet, delicate, mood-mottled - stands in sharp relief.

Helen has not felt secure since her mother left her and Declan as children with their grandmother while she went off to take care of her dying husband, their dying father. This abandonment shows in her reflexive lack of faith in her husband and in her problems with Lily, who sat by her husband until he died. Even when Helen realises how her mother suffered, there is no simple antidote to the chill Tóibín portrays: that much history will not be undone easily. The book is filled with these barely-thawable chills: Declan drew away from his mother too, as Lily had from Dora in her youth.

Tóibín gets great play out of the crumbling locale for his story. As Helen walks along the strand beneath her grandmother's house and the cliff-top by houses which are victims of the geography and abandonment, the application of the setting to the family inside it is clear. What you expect to be there forever falls away:

"She saw, as she walked towards Keatings', that some of the red galvanised iron from a shed at the side had fallen now, and raw walls with strips of the old wallpaper were open to the wind, and soon they would fall too, until only a few people would remember that there had once been a hill and a white house below it way back from the cliff."

It might not be subtle, but it is beautifully done, profoundly elegiac, and never overstated. I wouldn't be surprised if Tóibín had been sitting on the strand or on the cliff as he wrote, so vividly does he draw it. The moods of the book, ever-shifting, are set by his descriptions of the landscape, but this is so subtly done that it never reaches the pathetic fallacy.

Perhaps more can be drawn from the geography. Blackwater was the site of a major defeat of the English army by the Irish in 1598, and this sort of conflict reverberates still: Helen's safe life against the precarious, rocky relationships of her family; modern, solid Dublin against ancient, crumbling Cush.

The Blackwater Lightship is a masterwork of understated emotion and quiet complication: nothing is overwritten or imagined hyperbolically. Tóibín deals with subjects - Aids, mothers and daughters - which could quite easily lead one to grandiose prose, screaming both problems and their answers.

Instead, he handles his narrative and characters with delicacy. Lily is ripe for parody, a Tennessee Williams-esque screaming matron, but Tóibín gives her a wounded, still-raw side as well as the armour produced by life's knocks. He shows Helen in her turmoil, anger, grief, from the inside, without broad statements; his comments on her all stem from her self-awareness, making her feel so genuine.

The lightship (i.e. lighthouse) of the title is just up the coast from Cush. Lily tells how, as a child, she thought Blackwater was a man, while its nearby partner at Tuskar was a woman, their relationship the exchange of their beams. She imbued them with permanence, happiness, a role as guardians, but just as now Blackwater has stopped shining, so have all her relationships failed. The protecting comfort of Tuskar is now a loneliness too, while Blackwater is the mortality Tóibín draws throughout.

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