The Blackwater Lightship, another subtle exploration by writer Colm Toibin, is the story of three women, Mrs Devereux, Lily and Helen — granny, mother and daughter — who are forced to come together to care for Helen's dying brother Declan. Declan is gay and is dying of AIDS, and Toibin uses this eventuality as a backdrop for allowing the three principal characters to bury a lifetime of differences to help Declan spend his last days in peace. The setting is granny's — Mrs Devereux's — house in Cush, an Irish rural outpost.
Toibin playfully sets modern themes in sharp contrast to the the rigidity of life in rural Ireland to deliver a tale that resonates with the palpable tension among the protagonists. Living with her husband and two boys in Dublin, Helen is introduced as someone who leads the simulacrum of a normal existence, but with childhood tensions always bubbling within the surface. One day, she is visited by Paul, a (gay) friend of Declan's, who tells her that her brother is dying. It is up to Helen then to inform her family, in other words, reach out to a successful entrepreneur of a mother and bitter haggard of a granny — and also learn new and surprising things about her brother and his "lifestyle".
Everyone congregates at granny's house in Cush — there's the three women, Paul, and Larry, "another one of those". As the clock ticks away and Declan swings between health and sickness, Helen and Lily are put in situations that demand active investment in emotion, mainly a robust forgetfulness. Paul and Helen, not the most comfortable of couples, become friends forced to share their stories with one another out of a growing sense of desperation and time flying away. Paul shares his coming out travails and Helen the roots of her animosity towards her mother and granny. The latter half is far more important to the story than the former, but because of the unspoken questions that Toibin raises (Why is Declan gay? How did he contract HIV?), the release of gayness from hidden subtext to bold openness is a much needed relief, and also, something of necessity given one can only go so far with subtlety without frustrating the reader.
Declan's health continues to deteriorate and there comes the point when it becomes essential to move him back to hospital in Dublin. This gives another opportunity to Lily and Helen to settle their differences. Since the novel is written from Helen's perspective, we try and empathize with her inability to give in to tenderness with her mother. But it's not easy given how hard Lily is trying to mend fences. There is also the sense of a dual personality hovering over the women, allowing them to be perfectly maternal and supportive when it comes to Declan, yet also equally capable of bitter jibes with one another in private.
The novel ends with Declan still carrying on, and the promise of rapprochement between Lily and Helen. Critics have said this is not Toibin's best book, and I second that with respect to The Master, his 2005 book that fictionalized the life of writer Henry James. Both The Blackwater Lightship and The Master were shortlisted for the Booker, though neither won.
Also read my review of The Master.