It’s the early 1990s in Ireland and a young man, Declan, is in the final stages of AIDS. He has hidden his homosexuality and his illness from his family until now. His sister Helen, through whose eyes the story is told, his hard-bitten mother and his proud and obstinate grandmother will all react in different ways. Helen has never forgiven her mother for her utterly inept handling of their father’s death from cancer twenty years before, which left her feeling unloved and emotionally isolated. Now Declan wants to spend a few days in his grandmother’s house on a crumbling cliff in Cush and the family is reluctantly forced together to support him. His friends Paul and Larry are mercifully competent at dealing with the physical exigencies of illness and prepared to put up with the family’s hostility.
Colm Toibin’s writing style is deft and engaging. One cannot help but hear the Irish accent in his dialogue. ‘Oh look who it is now, look at her, look at her hair!’ shouts Granny at a panelist on the The Late Late Show. There are plenty of humorous interludes to lighten what would otherwise be a rather solemn narrative.
The decommissioned Blackwater Lightship of the title is a metaphor for the unfathomable loss of something expected to be consistently dependable – like the love of a mother or daughter.
The doctor, although she doesn't feature prominently in the story, comes off refreshingly well in this account. She is a consultant known to her patients as ‘Louise’. She’s given out her home number and is caring, worried and engaged in spite of the inevitability of Declan’s condition. Declan's friend Paul was medically literate in a way that seemed a credible and respectful reflection of the knowledge carers acquire through proximity and experience with chronic illness.
I didn’t know that this novel included an illness narrative when I plucked it off the shelf. I can recommend it as a lyrical account of family relationships in times of crisis.