The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

Declan has AIDS. He’s very sick. He sent me to tell you.

It is Ireland in the early 1990s. Helen, her mother, Lily, and her grandmother, Dora have come together to tend to Helen’s brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan’s two friends, the six of them are forced to plumb the shoals of their own histories and to come to terms with each other.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Blackwater Lightship is a deeply resonant story about three generations of an estranged family reuniting to mourn an untimely death. In spare, luminous prose, Colm Tóibín explores the nature of love and the complex emotions inside a family at war with itself.

Most of the people I’ve talked to about this book were divided. Half praised it to heaven, calling it wondrous, a beautiful book about human interactions while the others (me included) penned it down as predictable and extremely common. Basically, six adults hang around a cottage for a few days, constantly splitting off to have one-on-one conversations with each other about the others, and about the past. Helen resents her mother who resents her own mother, and they all talk and think about it endlessly. Maybe these ruminations on what to do when you don’t like or emotionally trust your family would feel more poignant or important if I identified with them more. As it was, it was all just really boring.

I know it does, but that’s what it felt like, so exposed, or maybe that isn’t the word. But it felt like shame, those days after he died when we came home

My boredom with the complete lack of plot or conflict might have been alleviated if the characters read more believably. But alas, they’re written, particularly Declan, Lily, and Dora, with broad strokes mixed with minutia. By the end of the book I knew that Declan liked self-service restaurants as a child, disliked carrots, and feared escalators, but I still had no idea what he did for a living, how he’d made the friends he did, or even his hobbies. It felt like his sole purpose in the story was to suffer and force Helen and their mother to have uncomfortable emotional moments together. He never felt like a person in his own right.

I’m going to miss you,’ he said. ‘I’m going to think all the time of things I want to say to you but you’ll not be there.’

I know I won’t miss this book. Cheap family drama embedded with boring dialogue.

1/5, burn pile.

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