A Little Nearer Redemption
By Rand Richards Cooper
Published: September 10, 2000
The New York Times
The Blackwater Lightship
By Colm Toibin.
273 pp. New York:
In his 1995 book, ''The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe,'' the Irish journalist and novelist Colm Toibin claimed to discern a new optimism afoot in his native land. In recent decades, he wrote, the traditionally dour outlook of a populace ''desperate to hold on to the small improvements in their lot'' had given way to the confidence of ''a new generation wandering around on a Saturday night with no innate fear.'' For the first time, being young in Ireland meant growing up in a ...view middle of the document...
'' Something is amiss, we sense, as we watch her wary withholding; there's some hurt in her past she won't face.
She's forced to do just that, however, by the news that her brother, Declan, is desperately ill in a Dublin hospital. In fact, he's dying of AIDS. Declan's wish is to be moved to the home of their acerbic grandmother, Dora, who lives on a cliff overlooking the sea. Guilt-stricken to discover that her brother has been ill for years and never confided in her, Helen moves in as well (husband and sons having been packed off to the in-laws in Donegal), along with her mother, Lily, and Declan's friends, Larry and Paul.
As a long week in the old house unfolds, Declan's health deteriorates, and his anguished mortality exerts a pressure of intimacy and confession on the others. Helen gives vent to an ''awful bitterness'' at her mother, dating back 20 years to her father's death from cancer, when Lily sent her and Declan off to Dora without ever telling them their father was dying. ''I've never trusted you again,'' Helen tells her mother now. ''I did what I could for you,'' Lily fires back, ''and you never gave me an inch.'' All truths must out as old griefs and grievances are revisited in a group encounter session conducted under the deadline of an impending death.
In a previous novel, ''The Story of the Night,'' Toibin brought a group of gay men to another seaside house -- in Argentina -- to face the ravages of illness. Admitting women into the circle lets him reconfigure traditional notions of gender and role in a kind of ad hoc family. Larry and Paul serve as Declan's chief comforters; they're the true mothers, with Helen and Lily (both ambitious career women) taking lessons. And not only in nursing. The men tell their coming-out stories with a hard-won honesty that is both example and prod -- the gay man as midwife to these women's reluctant emotions. For Dora, meanwhile, it's all too much, this openness, and when Larry confesses that as a younger man he slept with all four sons of a family in his old neighborhood, she bursts out in dismay: ''Oh guard your heart, that's my advice to you, guard your heart and be careful of yourself.''
The most engaging moments in ''The Blackwater Lightship'' follow the interplay between gruff, ornery Dora and the three men, who succeed in clasping hands across a gulf of age and sensibility. (''You should meet my granny,'' Declan tells Paul at the outset. ''She's a real paint remover.'') In the background, Toibin builds an atmosphere of abiding rural gloom: a crumbling cliff and stony stretch of beach; the ruins of a neighboring house; Dora's own house, musty and dank, its rooms swept at night by the beam of a nearby lighthouse.
His human interiors prove less convincing. Too often, Helen's passages read less like renderings of an inner state than notes on one: ''She realized that the bitter resentment against her mother which had clouded her life had not faded.'' ''As she saw him in the...