- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleThe Ties That Bind
Irish writer Colm Tóibín's spare, insightful novels have won him a wide readership both at home and abroad. Although his novels address gay themes -- his The Story of the Night is on the Lambda list of the 100 best gay novels of all time -- his work neatly transcends such genre pigeonholing. Short-listed for last year's Booker Prize, Tóibín's latest novel is The Blackwater Lightship. On the surface, it is the story of a man dying of AIDS who makes the decision to reveal his homosexuality and his disease to his family and to seek their help. But what makes it such a powerful piece of fiction is the way that the theme of homosexuality -- and, specifically, the ravages of AIDS -- serves as a metaphor for a pernicious condition that was destroying the man's family well before his own troubles become known to them.
In the opening pages of the novel, we meet the protagonist, Helen, who appears to be happily married with two small sons. For a brief period, we witness the calm routines of her life: tending to her children's nightmares, throwing a dinner party with her husband, taking care of her duties as a schoolteacher and administrator. But it isn't long before she receives a visit from a mysterious man named Paul, who is there to tell her that her brother Declan is dying of AIDS. The rest of this book is an intense and unrelenting survey of Helen's journey into the world of her brother's sickness, as she accompanies him to their grandmother's house on a hill over the sea.
Once Helen and Declan, along with their mother, arrive and settle in, it becomes clear that the emergency of Declan's disease is bringing together a family that has been torn apart by mistrust and resentment. Helen bitterly hates both her mother and her grandmother, and we learn that she didn't even invite them to her wedding or inform them of the birth of her children. At every turn, each character seems to have a web of reasons to resent the others; there is little hope that they will ever be untangled. At a few junctures, as Helen nears reconciliation with her mother, she simply shudders and hurries along to her next task in the sick room.
The theme of unhappy families is, of course, well covered in literature -- and recent years have offered quite a few books about AIDS and its impact on the lives of its victims and their loved ones. But the ease with which Tóibín makes the surface story of a misunderstood man dying of a misunderstood disease stand in for the surrounding family breakdown is nothing short of virtuosic. We soon come to see that Helen, her mother, and her mother in turn are cold, distant women. And, in offering a cast of basically unsympathetic lead characters, Tóibín shows us, through flashbacks and painfully direct and telling interactions, how these distances might have come to be created. It becomes impossible to condemn any one woman: Each has been so marked by loss that it would be heartless to hold her accountable for her actions.
In his exact and efficient prose, Tóibín is reminiscent of Jane Austen and Henry James for his ability to reveal, with sometimes brutal directness, the inevitable patterns of human interaction and the misery they can engender. His technique at times is so simple as to be nearly invisible: He often, for example, describes one character watching other characters interact from a distance that is great enough that she cannot hear what they are saying, but close enough that she can get an impression of what sort of exchange it is. In this way, we experience the pain of Helen's family in a cumulative fashion that mimics the actual reality of such a scenario. By the novel's end, a brief word or two can speak volumes about the explosive memories and resentments lurking just below the surface.
The Blackwater Lightship is one of those rare novels that exist on two completely different levels. While some readers will be drawn to its moving portrait of Declan's coming to terms with his fatal illness; others will appreciate its illumination -- in brief but constant flashes, like the lighthouse of its title -- of Helen and Declan's complex and tortured family ties. But it is the connection between these themes that gives the novel its power: The metaphor Tóibín develops between a physical disease that cannot be stopped and a psychological one that is just as ruthless is a rare literary accomplishment, confirming the great promise of his earlier work.