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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intense exploration of the ties that bind.
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...
Published on 15 Sept. 2003 by Mary Whipple

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shallow and Disjointed
The Blackwater Lightship is the story of family secrets, prejudices and misunderstandings all brought sharply into focus when one of the family members, Declan, discloses that he his dying from AIDS. At his request his family, sister, mother and grandmother together with two male friends gather at the grandmother's house and revisit their various relationships...
Published on 16 Jan. 2013 by Calypso


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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intense exploration of the ties that bind., 15 Sept. 2003
By 
Mary Whipple (New England) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'Imaginings and resonances and pain', 15 Oct. 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
A young Dublin man, Declan, is dying of AIDS. He comes out of hospital to go back and stay at his Grandmother's house by the sea. This brings his Grandmother Dora, his mother Lily, and his sister Helen there to join him, together with two of Declan's gay friends Paul and Larry. Although the tragedy of an AIDS death is at the centre of the book, it isn't the focus. In fact Declan is the least realised character. The real story is the difficult relationship between the three women. Lily and Helen in particular have barely spoken for years.
The book follows Helen, in third person past tense, but sympathy moves around. We get Helen's viewpoint, and see her mother through her eyes - but we also see her vision as partial and flawed. The book doesn't apportion blame - it shows all the characters as complex with their own internal lives that others - even those closest to them - can never fully comprehend.
I found some of the writing and dialogue a little flat, but the book became more moving as it went on. And there is a real parallel in its viewpoint with that of Jim Crace in 'Being Dead':
'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.'
This is millennial blues and a sense of our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, but it is balanced by, despite everything, the warmth of everyone towards Declan, and the attempts they all finally make - however haltingly - to understand and connect with each other.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love, Family, AIDS and Dysfunction, 7 July 2004
By 
prisrob "pris," (New England USA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So poignant, 28 Nov. 2009
By 
Four Violets (Hertford UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
I mean it a compliment to this book, which I devoured in three days, that it reminded me of so many other influential writings. Helen is the central character, estranged from her mother and scarred from the long ago events surrounding her father's death, as a result of which she has hardened herself and is unable to forgive. Now her beloved brother is dying of Aids, Helen finds herself living for a few days in her grandmother's house with him, along with two of his close friends, plus her mother and grandmother. The book seethes with unresolved issues. There are no easy solutions; but Colm Toibin must surely have been heavily influenced not only by the rhythms of James Joyce - "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age" - the five most beautiful paragraphs in the English language at the end of The Dubliners - and Helen's solitary walk on the beach where her thoughts about dying make me sure Colm Toibin has read Robinson Jeffers: "It does not matter, it does not hurt; They will be here. And when the whole human race Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here." I would love to see the film now; but sadly it seems to be unavailable. I would like to add, please don't be put off by thinking this will be a depressing book - in many places it is in fact very funny indeed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Taut, unforgiving expose of love and loss, 13 April 2010
By 
Elizabeth Gooster "roving reader" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
I'm a major fan of Colm Toibin, having previously read his fictionalised masterpiece on Henry James ('The Master') and his account of gay love in turbulent South America ('The Story of the Night'). 'The Blackwater Lightship' is an earlier book and for me, isn't quite as accomplished as Toibin's more recent work. But it has his characteristic haunting beauty nonetheless and it really pulled me into the dark network of grudges, resentment and denials that characterise the three-generational Irish family at the heart of the story. Declan is dying of AIDS and on his temporary release from hospital, he wants to revisit his grandmother's house, where he'd lived with his sister, Helen, as a child and from where the titular lighthouse is visible. Declan's story is heart rending, but it's the women of the family - his sister, mother, grandmother and their unresolved conflicts - that lie at the heart of this novel. A taut, unforgiving and powerful expose of love and loss.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A few laughs, a few tears... and a fine read., 28 Oct. 1999
By A Customer
A treatise on love, loss and family dysfunction which veers uncertainly between the comic and the elegaic before finally (and almost literally) running into the sand. Mostly dialogue-driven, it will make an excellent TV film. It's a pretty good book too.
'The Blackwater Lightship' draws together three women from different generations - Helen, her mother Lily and her grandmother Dora, pulled together by the impending demise of Helen's brother Declan who has recently revealed that he is a) gay and b) at death's door with AIDS. Both of the older women are widowed while Helen's husband Hugh is offstage throughout, in Donegal with their children. Declan is accompanied by two friends, Larry and Paul.
Declan has asked to visit his grandmother's house, where he and Helen were billeted as children through the long-drawn out death of their father. The weekend that they spend together provides an excellent opportunity for the airing of longstanding and heartfelt family grievances and the opportunity isn't wasted. By the end, a kind of progress has been made, although 'resolution' would be putting it rather strong. At least the litany of complaint has been fully aired.
None of the central women are wholly sympathetic. All are victims and, in their turn, oppressors. No great crimes or abuses are revealed, however - these are for the most part petty slights and injuries which have nonetheless accumulated and festered over years, turning into deeply felt grudges. The book does not provide great press for family values - there is a powerful contrast between the closeted, claustrophobic world of the family, and the emotional openness, honesty and freedom of the gay men, Larry and Paul, who are by turns entertained and dismayed by the women's relationship. If there is a fault in the characterisation, it is that Declan is pretty much a cipher throughout - a catalyst who serves only to bring these people together and spark conflict, but lacks a third dimension of his own. This gives his own situation surprisingly little dramatic weight - the rest of the 'cast' might almost as easily have come together for his wedding...
The book has a slightly soapy feel - dramatic events, plenty of emotional conflict, lots of angst, but lacking a strong central theme or a single dominant central character. In the way of soaps, a number of 'issues' are turned over - the family, love and death, homosexuality, the Church, rural against urban sensibilities - all of these get an airing without dominating the novel. It certainly doesn't seem to be 'about' Ireland (although why should it be?). Certainly, it seems to be much more about the relationships between the three women than it is about the central compelling event - Declan's impending death.
Page by page, however, the style is excellent - the dialogue is terrific, there are some excellent descriptive passages and even some good comic relief, provided by the old girl's neighbours. It has an almost cinematic feel - scenes are carefully framed and powerfully visual, and the book relies heavily - and successfully - on dialogue to move the action along. I look forward to seeing it on the screen...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Shallow and Disjointed, 16 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
The Blackwater Lightship is the story of family secrets, prejudices and misunderstandings all brought sharply into focus when one of the family members, Declan, discloses that he his dying from AIDS. At his request his family, sister, mother and grandmother together with two male friends gather at the grandmother's house and revisit their various relationships.

The metaphor of the light flashing from Tuskar and briefly illuminating their lives sums up the heavy clichés that underpin the book and are somewhat irritating. For a Booker nomination this is a disappointing read. The story relies heavily on us being told rather than shown things. There is an obsession with trivial detail. The dialogue is dull in large part because the author simply relies on a 'he said, she said' structure which dilutes the emotional content. The medical aspects of AIDS are poorly dealt with, and not one of the characters ever displays any concern about the possibility that they or others are at risk of catching the disease, or the impact on others if they did. As a result the characters lost credibility.

The idiomatic style of writing means that the story doesn't flow, giving it a slightly jerky, disjointed feel. The book tries to deal sensitively with the relationship and other issues and I suspect this is why it has some acclaim. However, it simply does not have the depth or quality of writing to lift it beyond the mediocre.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful beautiful beautiful, 2 Jun. 2003
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
I started this book knowing that I was going to love it - based on previous books Toibin has written. And I did. From beginning to end I could just feel myself there - at the party, on the beach, in the room with three generations of that family. I didn't always want to be there but something was keeping me reading on, just to see if they could make some sense of it all.
When I read it for the second time, I enjoyed the use of light and dark as they characters revealed more. The lighthouse just gave flashes of illumination as the characters struggled to understand each other and themselves.
So it's not just another book about AIDS, it's a beautiful book about a fmaily and how a family can tear itself apart. Or pull together. I loved it!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected, compelling and a joy to read, 14 Oct. 2000
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
Helen, her estranged mother and her grandmother nurse Helen's dying brother in a crumbling house in rural Ireland. The author interveaves past and present events and allows us to identify and sympathise with all the characters. The characters are beautifully drawn, providing a sharp insight into their characters, background and motivation.
The style is spare and the overall effect is very moving.
Read this book and be prepared to re-think some of your own family relationships!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as expected, 14 Jan. 2010
This review is from: The Blackwater Lightship (Paperback)
I actually bought this book after coming across the film of the same name on TV one afternoon. Have to say it's one of the few books where I actually preferred the film, which is very unusual. The focus of the novel is the estranged relationships of the three women, grandmother, mother and daughter, although most of the tale is told through the eyes of the daughter. All strong women in their own right, and Granny is a bit of a character. They are brought together, reluctantly, after the only male in the family, the gay brother is discovered to have AIDS and wants to come home to die. Usually I am in floods at sad tales like these, but this one left me strangely unmoved, and a bit hacked off at the daughter and her stubbornness with regard to relationship with her mother. The actual reason of the estrangement seemed very weak.
However, on saying all this, it was an enjoyable enough read, nothing too taxing. Give it a go yourselves. I tried to borrow it from my local library, but no-one seemed to have a copy in stock. Maybe that says something to you.
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The Blackwater Lightship
The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin (Paperback - 7 Mar. 2008)
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