The family scenes at the beginning of The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Tóibín’s fourth novel, are so leisurely that they inspire a growing sense of mystery as to what the book is going to be about. Helen, a school principal, lives in a suburban Dublin neighborhood with her husband, Hugh, and their two young boys, and for a little while, it appears that the novel will be about Irish cultural nationalism. Hugh, who works at an Irish-speaking school, is an avid speaker of the tongue. Helen is not, and feels mildly out of place at a party that Hugh hosts for his colleagues and that climaxes in a drunken but soulful sort of Irish folk sing-along. But this tension never takes center stage, leaving the reader wondering if Blackwater will explore some hidden conflict closer to home. Their boys—Cathal, six, and Manus, four—are both precocious and picky. Manus’s conduct is recalcitrant enough to briefly suggest that he has some sort of behavioral or emotional disorder. Perhaps the novel will somehow revolve around the difficult child. Something, however, remains missing from the picture of Helen, who clearly hesitates to give herself over completely to her relationship with her family.
In past novels, Tóibín sustains this type of uncertainty to chilling effect. The Story of the Night, his previous and best book, is by turns a cold-eyed account of a love affair and its end, a political thriller, and an unexpectedly brutal AIDS story. Tóibín quietly blindsides the reader with his talent for unpredictable plot shifts and emotional shocks.
Blackwater delivers its only shock not to the reader so much as to Helen, in the form of the news that her brother Declan has had AIDS for years and is now seriously ill. When Declan asks his sister to relay these facts to their estranged mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora, we quickly learn what is missing in our picture of the somewhat emotionally dormant Helen. Angry over her mother’s perceived abandonment of her and Declan after their father’s death, Helen has completely cut off Lily, who has never even met her own son-in-law or grandchildren. It also becomes disappointingly clear that the rest of the story will unfold as a predictable psychological drama. Declan asks to be taken to their grandmother’s house. There, Helen confronts the sources of her estrangement from her mother, and begins the journey to reconciliation, with a bit of insight—accepted after some resistance—from Declan’s alternative family of gay friends, who have been caring for him in his sickness.
In relating this yarn of familial healing, too much of The Blackwater Lightship relies on easy symbols such as the persistent and bland emblem of family, heritage, and protection—the house. Helen, in her delusion that she could simply leave the past behind, chose the newly built suburban house her family lives in because she liked “the idea that no one had ever lived here before.” Lily, who after her husband’s death shut down emotionally and withdrew from her children, sold their home, and lives in a grand but soulless modern house in Wexford. Declan’s and Helen’s grandmother still lives in her cliffside home, which will, meaningfully, soon fall into the sea due to erosion.
In the latter half of Blackwater, Tóibín at times abandons these heavy-handed motifs for a more nuanced observation of his characters’ behavior. The best moments include a flashback to Cathal and Manus’s first visit to their great-grandmother’s house, a comic set piece that reveals stark intergenerational incomprehension without reverting to blunt symbolism. One of The Story of the Night‘s great virtues is the emotional numbness of its tone, as if the narrator is still stunned by the events he describes. It focuses on empirical facts in a cold but searching way, suggesting that all you have to go on in relationships with others is what you observe them say and do, and making that seem like precious little indeed. Blackwater‘s leaden backstory sometimes gives way to writing of a comparable pitch, centering on spare dialogue that bristles with tension and passive-aggressive barbs. The characters are all either estranged or just plain strangers. As they pair off serially in tête-à-tête conversations, they vacillate among their desires to help Declan, to settle scores, and to reach out to each other: Dora may bemoan her gay guests’ morals, but she’ll also praise them simply to needle her daughter.
As Declan’s physical illness reaches its climax, the urgency of his medical need and the nearness of his death force his relatives into increasingly blunt confrontation. When Lily finally blurts out to Declan, “Helen says that I abandoned you after your father was sick,” it comes as a relief to the novel’s characters. Unfortunately, the reader has seen it coming ever since Blackwater‘s initial, tantalizing sense of mystery was so quickly dispelled.