When Declan went to bed, the three women sat in the kitchen eating sandwiches. There was an uneasy peace between them; they chose topics with care and then moved cautiously, alert to the friction which even a stray word could cause.
I've read many good things about this novel, including the fact that it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. For some reason I was also fascinated by the name The Blackwater Lightship, it just sounded so strange and poetic. I didn't actually realize what the name referred to until about halfway through the novel: Blackwater is a town in Ireland and, in the novel, it has a lightship - a vessel with a light to guide ships, similar to a lighthouse. And, of course, an important symbol in the novel.
The novel is set in Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen O'Doherty bids farewell to her husband and two children as they go on a trip to visit relatives. She is planning to follow them a few days later, but her plans change abruptly when a stranger comes to her house with the news that her brother, Declan, is in hospital, dying of AIDS, and it is her task to tell her mother and grandmother the news. The problem is that Helen has not been in good terms with her mother for years: she did not invite her mother to her wedding and her two sons have never met their grandmother or great-grandmother.
Declan's illness forces the three generations of women to come together in their grandmother's decaying old house on the seaside in Cush. As they take care of him, their complex, unresolved disagreements also come to the surface.
The overall story is incredibly lyrical and emotional. The characters are not predictable or shallow, but fascinatingly complex and realistic. Helen's mother, Lily, is a successful business woman who feels guilty about not being a good-enough mother, while Helen fears that she is repeating her mother's mistakes with her own children. Declan's illness and his gay friends bring another perspective to the otherwise somewhat introvert family. Colm Tóibín has written a beautiful, sad book.
Colm Tóibín: The Blackwater Lightship. Picador. 1999.
Ask about Ireland: The Blackwater Lightship
Wikipedia: The Blackwater Lightship
Wikipedia: Colm Tóibín