The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin

In 2009 in the US state of Illinois two siblings, Steven and Kathryn Miner, began a lawsuit against their mother, Kimberly Garrity, for ‘bad-mothering’, suing her for $50,000 for ’emotional distress’: the mother had sent her son an ‘inappropriate birthday card’ that did not contain any money; called her daughter to come home early from a ‘homecoming’ event; and threatened her 7 year-old son with the police if he did not put his seat belt on. Two years and two courts later the case was thrown out. The fact that one of the sibling’s lawyers was their father, Garrity’s ex-husband, only adds fuel to the farce. What is bad mothering? What is good mothering? How do mothers learn to be mothers? Today there is a wealth of information on the internet, as well as publications and TV shows but for baby-boomers, people born in the decades after World War II, there was no such help; mothering was assumed to be innate.

Colm Toibin’s fourth novel, The Blackwater Lightship (1999), which earned him his first appearance (the first of three) on the Man-Booker Prize short list, is about just that: mothering. It is a story of Helen, a young mother of two boys, her mother, Lily, and Lily’s mother Dora. All mothers. These three women are thrown into a crisis when a man called Paul, the best friend of Declan, Helen’s much-adored brother, visits her with awful news. Declan is in hospital. He has AIDS and he has had it, unknown to his family, for a long time. He is dying and he wants to be taken to his grandmother’s house near the sea, and he wants Helen to break the news to their mother, Lily. The husbands of these mothers are either dead or away: Helen’s husband has taken their two boys to visit his family in the west.

All this is most difficult for Helen, who has been estranged from her mother, and grandmother, for more than ten years: over-mothering is what Helen would describe as the reason. However Helen does as she is bid. She re-arranges her busy life as an education administrator, breaks the news to her mother in her mother’s new and expensive house, a house Helen has never seen before and they take an emaciated and very sick young man to his grandmother’s house on the coast where he remembers boyhood summer visits with affection; but two of Declan’s friends come as well: Paul, of course, and another gay man called Larry.

The three men sit in Declan’s bedroom with the door shut, talking and giggling, while the three women sit around the kitchen table trying to think of something to say to each other; what they have in common is only the past, and the past is thwart with danger.

Transience is everywhere. Grandma’s house is falling down and in a few decades it will probably fall down the cliff and into the sea, just like the house down the road where only a back wall remains: the coast is moving inland, time is winning. Declan can remember the lighthouse from his childhood, the Blackwater Lightship, but it is no longer there, replaced by a modern electric one, its moving beam washing over the house and everyone in it

Three diffident mothers and two confident and self-assured men haggle over mothering rights. The men win because the men know what to do. All Declan wants from these women in his life is for them to love him. Unconditional love is something all three women know very little about.

This was the book that introduced me to the work of Colm Toibin. His formal and authorial prose (no contractions) clearly defines the boundaries between these people and his deft handling of the back-stories and the changes and smudges that develop over these boundaries brings a smile to your lips (Larry tells a bemused Grandma about his first sexual experience) and a tear to your eye (Declan’s stark, angry but silent confrontation with his future as he sits by the fire staring into it; the women set the table and chat about the weather not knowing what else to say).

It is a confrontation between the past and the present; a clash of generations; a stark reminder of how far the world has changed in a single lifetime; it highlights the difference between mothering and caring, and it is a wonderful affirmation of the power of literature.

If you don’t know the work of Toibin, and you should, this is a great place to start.