Off the Shelf: The Blackwater Lightship
By Colm Toibin
ISBN 13: 978-0-684-87389-3 1999 273 pp.
Review by Terrence Kenneally
This month’s book review features a book from our not-so-distant-past. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Toibin. The 1999 Booker Prize nominated novel, a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2004, and now a stage adaptation production currently playing at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.
The story is set in Dublin and County Wexford and described from the viewpoint of Helen, a successful school principal living with her husband and two children in Ireland. She learns one day her brother, Declan, who is a homosexual, has been ill with AIDS for years and has refused to tell her until then.
He asks her to deliver their mother, Lilly, and grandmother, Dora, the news. This presents a challenge to Helen, as she has had minimal contact with the two women due to deeply buried conflicts relating to Helen’s past and her father’s sudden death when she was a child.
As the three women meet again, they are forced to overcome these struggles for Declan’s sake. The novel follows the painful journey they must take to correct misunderstandings that exist between them. Two friends of Declan, Paul and Larry, join him and the women in a crumbling, old house by the sea in Wexford near an old lighthouse- the Tuskar Lighthouse from which the story gets its name.
The six of them from different generations and with different beliefs must listen and come to terms with one another. It is a clash of country versus city, conservative versus liberal, and old ways versus new.
Coping with Declan’s impending death and previously unacknowledged sexuality that’s buried in the past is a trigger for exposing a gaping wound from their childhood. There are recriminations, resentment, jealousy, and bitterness notwithstanding the black cloud over their heads in the sense that Declan is dying of the disease. Toibin shows how death can shed light on the morals of individuals as well as entire families.
If any of the readers are planning a trip to Dublin in the near future, I recommend The Blackwater Lighthouse as an emotionally engaging play.
*Terrence Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Associates in Rocky River, Ohio. He received his Masters in Irish Studies from John Carroll University and has taught Irish history and literature. Reach him at Terry@tjkenneally.com.