Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin


Fiction – paperback; Picador; 272 pages; 2000.

This quiet, understated novel, the fourth by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize and the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And with good reason. It is a beautiful heartfelt book about three generations of women, estranged for years, who must join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.

Helen, the central character, is a 30-something school teacher married with two young boys, who has managed to carve out a comfortable existence in Dublin. But despite her career success and ordered life, she hides a guilty secret: as a college student she had a falling out with her mother, Lily, and has not talked to her since. In fact Lily was not invited to Helen’s wedding and she has never met her grandsons.

Helen’s relationship with her grandmother, Dora, is not quite as strained, but Dora and Lily are particularly tetchy with one another and rarely talk.

But these personal histories, filled with pain, hurt and anger, must be cast aside when Helen’s younger brother, Declan, announces he has AIDS. For the first time in decades the three women are thrown together by circumstances beyond their control.

When a very ill Declan says he wants to stay in his grandmother’s falling-down house by the Wexford coast, the three women, all strong-willed and contrary, find their tense relationships tested even further.

Things are not made any easier by the presence of Declan’s gay friends whom he regards as “family” but whom his mother, in particular, does not like.

But for Helen it is the house, which holds unpleasant childhood reminders of her father’s untimely death, that causes her to confront her troubled past.

The Blackwater Lightship is not a straightforward novel. There’s no happy conclusion. By turns it is shocking and moving. Its stark, spare prose lulls the reader into a false sense of comfort, a bit like the calm before the storm, because the nub of this novel is far from pleasant. Exploring the notions of family ties and how history binds us together no matter how hard we might try to escape it, it also looks at morals, manners and the pain we can dish out with one hand and hold close with the other.

This is a quick, emotional read and one that lingers in the mind for a considerable time. It is hugely reminiscent of John McGahern’s Amongst Women and Jennifer Johnston’s The Gingerbread Women, two other Irish novels about troubled people coming to term with familial relationships, both written in a succinct, bleak style.

6 thoughts on “‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin”

  1. I really, really need to get off my butt and read something by this author, I just have a feeling I’d love his books. In fact, I have a copy of The Master sitting on my to-be-read shelves – there’s just no excuse!


  2. Dean, yes, I remembered that you had raved about this book. I read the Heather Blazing years ago, but think I was too young to appreciate his style; I keep meaning to go back to it to see whether it would resonate more now that I am older.


  3. Yes, The Master is also well worth it. You’re absolutely spot on, kimbofo, with the Amongst Women comparison. I read it only a few months ago (didn’t review it on my blog as I was on holiday!) and the two have a lot in common.


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