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The Blackwater Lightship

By Colm Toibin

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand things.

The Blackwater Lightship, Colm Toibin’s fourth novel, concerns Helen O’Doherty, a middle-aged (well, she acts like she’s middle-aged) school teacher, originally from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, but now living in cosy domesticity in suburban Dublin with dependable fellow school teacher husband Hugh, and their two young sons, the almost adult in his behaviour six-year-old, Cathal, and the more mischievous three-year-old, Manus.

Early in the narrative she learns from Paul, a fairly dour friend of her beloved only brother Declan, that Declan is dying of AIDS, and is in St James’ Hospital. Furthermore, he would like Helen to put their granny, Dora Deveraux, and their mother, Lily Breen, both widows living alone in the south-east, in the picture about his condition and, pretty much of necessity, his sexual orientation and lifestyle. He also expresses a desire, on leaving hospital, to spend some time in his granny’s house, a rundown former B’n’B, in danger of falling into the sea.

So the scene is set for a tense, claustrophobic ensemble piece, fraught with the complex anxieties and enmities, stresses and stains, and tentative connections and empathies, which are spun out, to be broken and restructured time and time again, like an intricate spider’s web, between the three generations of women, all of whom seem to actively dislike each other, especially Helen and her mother, and Declan and Paul and another friend of theirs who comes to stay, the rather more fun-loving Larry. (Note: neither of these chaps is the dying man’s ‘partner’, as they say these days, although to these ears that term, whether applied to hetero- or homosexual relationships, sounds more like a couple have set up a law firm rather than a household.) Eventually various sorts of reconciliation are achieved, even between the estranged Helen and Lily.

None of this is difficult to understand. Here are the things about which I have some questions. How can such a badly written book be nominated for the Booker Prize? For, regardless of the subject matter, the prose here is wooden, and the construction creaky. A L Kennedy, in her Scotland on Sunday review of the novel (subsequently syndicated by The Irish Times), referred euphemistically to ‘...starkly expositional writing, the bones of the character’s motivation laid out in abrupt summary’, although she did temper her criticisms with the observation that, ‘These clumsier moments seem all the more striking when set within a text filled with passages of exemplary subtlety, finely-drawn atmosphere and beguiling simplicity.’ However, there is an awful lot more telling than showing here. Henry James it isn’t. Nor does Helen partake of the heightened sensitivity and highly-developed sensibility of a Jamesean hero or heroine, a central character without which his brand of fiction is unimaginable, and upon which it depends for its effects. Physical descriptions of the characters here are also largely eschewed.

Besides all of which, the very use of language itself is for the most part so dull and dreary, unimaginative and uninspired. Chapter Six is made up almost entirely of long chunks of stilted, unconvincing dialogue between Helen and Paul, an easy-for-the-writer but boring-for-the-reader way of doing things. People simply don’t speak like this anymore, if indeed they ever did. What is more, most of the characters’ speech patterns, with the exception of the grandmother, sound exactly the same. And, on a technical note, on page 191 three consecutive sentences end with ‘said’, while on page 207 alone I counted eleven ‘said’s in all. This is just lazy.

Doubtless, fans of Toibin’s will call the prose ‘spare’ or ‘taut’, and defend the novel in terms of its realism or ‘acute psychological insight’. But writing as laconic as this too often tends towards the lacklustre. Isn’t it remarkable that it is usually the more adventurous stylists who are also the ones who are best at conveying emotion as well, who wind up making you feel the most? As for the psychology on display here, it frequently comes out sounding like little more than witless self-help psychobabble. At one point Declan describes his mother as ‘needy’, at another Helen explains her alienation from her mother to Paul thus:

My mother taught me never to trust anyone’s love

because she was always on the verge of withdrawing

her own. I associated love with loss, that’s what I did.

And the only way that I could live with Hugh and bring

up my children was to keep my mother and my grandmother

away from me.

But it is part of the human condition that loss will always, ultimately and inevitably, be a more lasting experience than love, at least on the terrestrial, temporal plain. As regards the book’s realism, Toibin seems shockingly and even dangerously naive about hospitals and how they work, about access to consultants and their communication skills. One would think, from the evidence here, that there was actually a health service in this country worth the name. In this reviewer’s personal experience, hospitalisation can often be a process akin to criminalisation.

Toibin is, of course, Ireland’s most openly ‘gay’ writer. But the most balanced response any unpartisan critic can give to writers so labelled, and their characters, is: ‘They fuck men, so what?’ Sexual preference does not excuse mediocre writing, nor does it make the characters inherently more interesting than anyone else. This book has nothing like the incisiveness and humanity William Burroughs showed in Queer, nor are there any purple, pink passages to rival Jean Genet, or Edmund White. A short story like ‘Gravity’ by David Leavitt can say more in less than six pages about the relationship between a man dying of AIDS and his mother than The Blackwater Lightship does in all its 273, even if it is really the mother/daughter relationship which emerges as central to the novel. What the book does confirm is that there are too many very good journalists and essayists who think they can also cut it as novelists.

What makes the Booker nomination all the more incomprehensible is that it comes in a year when novels of the quality of The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie, An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, and Everything You Need by A L Kennedy have been passed over. Kennedy, who would benefit most from the prize, is the only published novelist in the British Isles, under forty, conceivably possessed by a vision, or something, which might loosely be termed ‘genius’, and the metaphysical complexities underpinning her work are simply far beyond the reach of most of her contemporaries. Could the snub be because of her refusal to play required social games, or to suffer gladly the kind of London publishing world behaviour satirised in her latest novel? Or could it be because when she judged the Booker in 1996, she was so openly disgusted with the choice of her fellow-judges, Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a book she deplored for its inauthentic dialogue? And, while we’re at it, why was The Untouchable by John Banville, Ireland’s most accomplished, intelligent and stylish living novelist, (and, incidentally, itself inter alia a gay-themed novel), overlooked in 1997? Such wilful inconsistencies, or consistent wilfulness, can only make a laughing stock of this most publicised of prizes, and bring it into disrepute.

The Blackwater Lightship does glimmer in places, as in the scene where a younger Helen lays out her recently deceased father’s clothes on a bed in an effort to remember him, or when, standing at the edge of a cliff at dawn looking at the sea, she realises her own essential absence from the world, and how ‘...there was no need for people, that it did not matter whether there were people or not. The world would go on.’ There is also a quiet gathering in emotional intensity towards the end. But by then it is too late. For the most part, this is flat, insipid stuff. There are definitely no bright lights here. It may please some readers, but it didn’t float my boat. When one considers the sheer artistry and imaginative daring of recent novels like Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller, or This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann, one wonders how much of this could have got past an editor.

And so, given Toibin’s profile and influence, bang go this humble Irish hack’s chances of publication with Picador in the foreseeable future.

First published in Books Ireland


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