Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship - Colm Tóbín

This is a tender and careful book, probing gently into the shells wherein three generations of a family have housed their buried pains and unresolved emotions.

The catalyst for this exploration is the news that Declan, brother of Helen and child of Lily wants to go to his granny Dora's house to get away from the hospital for a while. He is dying of AIDS but hasn't told his family and has relied on his good friends Paul and Larry, who have nursed him through his illness until now.

As well as the immanent loss of Declan, the book focusses on earlier losses, particularly the early death of Helen and Declan's father, Lily's husband. The repercussions of this are still twisting their lives into uncomfortable shapes. On the surface Lily and Helen are successful professionals but emotionally, they are fractured and brittle. "When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back." Things have been so bad between them that Lily was not asked to her daughter's wedding nor has she met her son in law nor grandchildren.

This loss is reflected in the title, The Blackwater Lightship refers to a lightship which was once a companion light to the still extant Tuskar lighthouse. There is always something fragile and provisional about a ship on water. It is no mistake that in this books title, light is thus associated with the provisional and blackness with the eternal.

As well as the missing lighthouse a recurring image in the book is the remains of a house slowly collapsing as the very ground upon which it is built collapses onto the beach under the ministrations of the tide. Indeed one part of the family history that is uncovered during the book revolves around the assumption that Dora's house would also suffer this fate.

In Helen's mind this takes on an apocalyptic shape: "She imagined the sea, angry and inexorable, moving slowly towards the town, everything dissolving, slowly disappearing, the dead being washed out of their graves, houses crumbling and falling, cars being dragged out into the unruly ocean until there was nothing any more but this vast chaos."

But this is not an apocalyptic book. It opens at a party held in Helen's house and ends with what could be a prologue to a reconciliation. Between these two points there is much humour and warmth to leaven the darker elements. The grannies cats are named for two feuding politicians and she surprises everyone at one stage when producing a flick knife.  I particularly liked this small reconciliation between Declan and Lily: "'Have you taken all your pills?' his mother asked.  He stopped and looked at her. 'You sound exactly like my mother,' he said."

When Declan is able to share his fears with his mother his friends tell Helen that this is something he had wanted but not sought as he "was so afraid that your mother would refuse to see him." The more we have to be strong, the more we need to comfort the child inside. 

Most of my thoughts on this book revolve around how it deals with the early loss of a parent and the long term affect of this loss. This is something which has huge resonance for me and I found that it rang very true.

There are the emotions that are resisted because they come too heavily freighted, and because self protection has locked them away.  "And this was what she was now resisting, something she had killed in herself, which in her mother was coming to the fore again, unadulterated and unashamed." As a child you are not ready for such trauma. Helen tried to bury it forever but did, of course, fail. Even  buried these feelings result in a "web of unresolved connections" "that anyone who was close to her must have learned long ago to live with and manage."

And then there are the what if's: "She wondered...how different she would be now if she had spent those days after her father died openly grieving for him. Would she be happier now?" But it is not just children who are traumatized by death. Lily tells her side of the story and somewhat explains why she was not really there for her children: "I did not know there could be a blackness like I felt that day." "I know I came home to you all without him. There was nothing I could do."

The challenge now is for them all to be there for Declan, and for each other.

The Blackwater Lightship is a profoundly human and precise book that attempts to understand something of the heart, that wounded metaphor that gives us life and whatever we choose to call meaning.

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