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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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on 15 October 2000
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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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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on 2 June 2003
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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on 7 August 2000
I read Toibin's "The South" over Christmas and was amazed at the beauty of that short novel. It really touched me in a way few books about something so distant from my own life have ever done. Since then I have been on the lookout for another book by him, and chanced upon this title.
I was disappointed. Toibin is still a masterful storyteller, his use of language alarmingly natural and fluid. Yet this book seems cobbled together somehow. The story itself is unremarkable, the characters, as other reviewers have pointed out, annoyingly stereotyped. For example, was it really necessary to have the "gay" characters discuss their individual coming out episodes? This cheapened the book for me.
Whereas "The South" was touchingly individual, with little to say in terms of blatant didacticism, "The Blackwater Lightship" seems to carry with it too much of a heavy "worthiness." That said, Toibin has written a better than average novel that is worth reading if there is nothing better lying around.
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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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on 23 July 2000
I read all the previous reviews, and I feel a bit cheated that the book failed to touch me at all. I really hated all the cliches in it and I didn't find any of the characters were explored enough to be heroines. Of course, we are told blatant truths about Helen, for example, but the author tells them himself; we should be left to find Helen's fears from herself, not by it being pointed out openly by the author. It feels like an Oprah Winfrey show, where everyone is exploring their fears, but no one rises beyond them to live. It also bothers me that we are instructed all along on the characters by the author, but none of their dialogue or thoughts tell these things to us independently, which means basically that his building of characters is at fault. The grandmother was the highlight, but then all the females were so spoilt for me by their bitterness for each other. I wish at least part of this bitterness was a little better explored, but it wasn't; it was just there, and at times it really felt like the three women were just a bunch of old hags just blaming and gossiping about everyone else. All said, it would definately serve better as a TV drama that housewives would watch but I would definately ignore.
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on 30 October 2013
Never heard of this author before, and this is the first book of his that I have read.

It is set in Ireland, and is centred around three estranged generations of the same family that are thrust back together as the son is close to death with AIDS. They decamp to the grandmothers house close to the sea with two of his friends, where they try to care for hims as his approaches the end of his life.

Helen, the main character, has had a terrible relationship with her mother after she felt completely abandoned when her father was also dying. Together in the house the relationship is very strained and they test each other. they are coming to terms with a son and brother dying, bring back all the terrible memories for Helen.

Declan, the brother, suffers terribly with the ravages of the illness, and his friends seem to be the only level heads as the family try to re-adjust the boundaries of their relationships.

The writing in this book is effortless, especially given the subject. Helen is a strong character, the others less so. I felt that Declan was almost a side show to the main plot of the mother & daughter relationship. I liked the ending, as you are left with a mix of hope for Helen and Lily and and despair for Declan, and he has not tied the ends together to neaten it up, and leaves you wondering.
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on 13 April 2010
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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on 14 October 2000
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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