The Blackwater Lightship

blackwater lightship ch

I recently found myself in Ireland, in a Big House, in the library.  Leather-bound books were held snug side by side all over the walls.  Shelves devoted to birds, palm-wide chunks of Burke’s Peerages, Baronetage and Knightage, thin folio-type memoirs of African wildlife by European royalty, a forest-green, foil-embossed 1895 set of my beloved Hardy’s complete novels (prescient?  This was the year his last novel was published; did they know at the time that Hardy wouldn’t write another despite living another thirty-three years?!) Faded tablecloths before the Georgian windows bearing the outlines of the Sunday Times magazine, 1953 Coronation edition.  Vaguely Moroccan-looking cracked low round pouffes.  A spitting fire. Perfection? Nearly.

In this whole library was one – one – book with a modern cover.  Well, sixteen years old, which counts as modern in a library like that.  It was by Colm Toibin, who has achieved recent Booker attention with his renowned The Testament of Mary (though this book also was shortlisted).  As a writer not only Irish, but with a deeply Irish sensibility and timbre to his writing, I felt I owed it to the library to give it a read.*

The Blackwater Lightship is a generational family drama.  It is a “sit-dram” in the way of a “sit-com” – that is to say, a group of disparate people are brought together and restricted, and the drama is left to play out.  In this case, 3 generations of semi-estranged women are brought together by the critical illness of the brother/son/grandson.  This apparent focal figure, however, is given less importance than these women, and even his two friends who arrive at this unlikely bedside scene are brought to life with more potency.  This is really about the three women, and the slow uncovering of quite why their relationship is in such dire straights.  Why has the mother never even met her grandchildren?

I’m not going to lie, it’s not spectacular.  It’s deeply Irish – the rhythms of the speech, the preoccupations – give it a distinctness which disguises the fact that the storyline isn’t totally compelling.  The cleverest thing about this book, though, is that the real painful crux lying at the dark heart of this family isn’t a piece of plot that is unveiled, when you realise that something dastardly has been done.  There isn’t a twist which releases abuse, say. The real pain spills out the fallout of a “simple” bereavement – the ensuing desire to be emotionally indepedent and separate.  The tragedy is not the tragedy, so to speak.  It is what comes after, and the effort to move on, that have caused damage beyond the event.  And that’s something quite profound.  It unfolds human nature into the light a little bit more.
But, you lucky folk, now that I’ve given you the philosophical lesson in this book, you probably don’t have to read it.  For there are more enjoyable reads out there.  After finishing, I idly picked up one of the Hardy volumes and read a few chapters of Far From the Madding Crowd – now THERE’S writing I could read forever.  Have a cup of tea, think about the importance what comes after traumatic events and the need to come together as a family, then pick up some Hardy instead.
* There’s a whole other post in the whole “Big House” English/Ireland politics which I think is best left for another day – suffice to say I recognise a certain irony here…

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