‘You know, in my family,’ remarks a gay Irish architect in Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones – still haven’t told my parents that they are heterosexual.’ It is a neat Wildean inversion, one of the few good jokes in this harrowing, deeply unfunny novel, and a flash of wit with wider implications. For this is a novel about Aids which is not a ‘gay’ novel, or indeed much about sexuality at all. It is about mothering; and this is a gay issue in the book only because those most proficient at the craft turn out to be a couple of homosexual men. Larry the architect goes on to suggest that his mother would probably rather find out he was a Provo than gay: at least that would be something ‘normal’ they could talk about. Revealing or not revealing what you are is a way of trying to make contact with a mother, not a condition in itself.
Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger rank among Dublin’s so-called Northside realists, creating a world in which compulsively blaspheming council-estate dwellers keep cocaine in the bath and horses in the kitchen. This novel, by contrast, could be described as Southside realism, at least in its opening pages. Helen O’Doherty and her husband Hugh live with their small sons on the middle-class south side of Dublin, though Hugh is an Irish-language enthusiast from Donegal and Helen comes from small-town Wexford. Helen is estranged from her mother Lily, and fantasises about running her over in a car; indeed, Larry, despite being an easygoing fellow, would very much prefer to be taken hostage by Hizbollah than be locked in a room with Lily. It is one of those commonplace families in which, as Helen remarks, making tea is a form of power play. But as the narrative unfolds, this resentful mother and daughter, along with Helen’s grandmother Dora, move edgily together over the body of Helen’s brother Declan, who is dying of Aids. It was the death of Helen’s father which turned her against her mother, and it takes another death to reunite them. Meanwhile, Paul and Larry, gay friends of Declan, have been giving him the care and consolation he refuses from his mother, who did not even know of his gayness. The reader, too, is allowed to know little of his sexual history; it is not that kind of novel. Paul and Larry are his companions, not his partners.
In one sense, this saga could just as well have been set in Boston or Bournemouth. In Ireland, however, it gains an additional resonance. Such suburban goings-on are not just suburban goings-on, as they might be in the fiction of Margaret Drabble or Penelope Lively. Instead, they raise questions of tradition and modernity, of pure-hearted rural Gaeldom v. decadent urban gayness, which touch the nerve of a nation increasingly divided between the Treaty of Rome and the Bishop of Rome, between secular modernity and a still powerful Church.
In a series of deft twists, however, the novel broaches this conflict only to deconstruct it. Helen and Hugh may buy their wine at a posh south Dublin supermarket, but Hugh speaks Irish to the children and Helen is sullenly nostalgic for her rural Wexford home. Ironically, it is her thoroughly modern mother, a computer specialist who favours avant-garde living spaces, who has unsentimentally sold the place off. Helen’s grandmother, a magnificent creation who lives in a ramshackle old Wexford house overlooking the sea, far from being a withered crone in a black shawl, is a feisty controversialist who wears make-up, sports a flick knife and learns to drive a car. Rather than allow her daughter to become a nun, she packs her off to dances in search of marriage partners. Granny may not approve of homosexuals, but she is unshockable, reasonably tolerant and an avid viewer of the liberal-minded Late Late Show.
Conversely, Paul may be gay, but this, unusually in Irish terms, has failed to alienate him entirely from the Catholic Church. Instead, he joins a Catholic gay men’s group (‘Cruising for Christ’, as Declan scoffs), and falls in with a mysterious rogue priest who proposes celebrating a secret marriage between him and his partner. The marriage, as Tóibín describes it, is an extravagant utopian fantasy, a lavish piece of Catholic homosexual wish-fulfilment in which the church glitters richly with gold and the wedding ceremony is followed by a sumptuous Land of Cockayne banquet. The enigmatic little priest, hands folded over his paunch, then proposes an improbable toast to the Catholic Church, and the happy couple take off for a honeymoon in Barcelona. The whole scene is a magical catharsis of Ireland’s moral woes. Later, Paul recalls, Declan would visit their apartment and crawl into the bottom of their bed, playing with their feet; he ‘loved being fed and looked after and listened to and protected from his former lovers by us’. The most revered of traditional Irish roles, that of the mother, is taken over by the representatives of a sexually dubious modernity.
Declan needs this male mothering because, like his sister, he has turned from Lily in disenchantment. Finally, retching in agony with stomach cramp, he will call out to her for help, releasing something precious in himself. Helen, however, is a harder case, since her relationship with her husband and children depends partly on repressing the vulnerability which her mother evokes in her. Looking at Hugh, she knows that ‘anybody else would have laid bare, in the way that he had covered, the raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.’ How does one repair a relationship whose very flaws sustain another?
This dilemma creates a flaw in the fiction itself. For Helen to come to terms with her mother means bundling Hugh and the children out of the novel, packing them off on holiday to Donegal and thus banishing Hugh from a story in which he has, as it were, some rights. There is a sense of Helen being disloyal to her husband with her mother. Hugh is defined rather patronisingly as decent and easygoing, so that the only significant heterosexual male in the book is a somewhat shadowy presence. Homosexual marriage may be affirmed, but heterosexual wedlock is correspondingly sidelined. A key relationship is never seen full on. The mother-child relationship overrides marriage, as it did so often in traditional Irish culture, though there it was usually a matter of the Mammy-fixated son, not of the disaffected daughter. But one could also read the novel as sidelining gay sexuality, offering up Declan as a kind of blood sacrifice to re-cement familial bonds.
Like any quest for a mother, Helen’s is about more than a mother. What she is really seeking is unconditional acceptance, a feeling which has been associated with the religious impulse as much as with the death drive. In Ireland, mothers are more than mothers because they are symbols of the suffering nation; and though The Blackwater Lightship is not in any obvious sense a political novel, it is not hard to see in Helen’s settling of accounts with Lily something of the vexed relation between past and present in contemporary Ireland. When Lily tries to comfort her tormented son, she sings him an old Gaelic song. Nothing is more fashionable in Irish culture today than a triumphalist Modernism which derides much of the nation’s history as Romantic junk. But in fact the cynic for whom Ireland’s turbulent colonial history is merely embarrassing is the flipside of the idealist who blathers on about the sons of Cuchulain. When the pendulum swings, it always swings too far.
Colm Tóibín is an ambivalent figure in this respect, a well-known ‘revisionist’ who nevertheless springs like his heroine from rural Wexford, and from a spot within it with a much-sung revolutionary history. Unlike some of his more hardboiled revisionist colleagues, he is aware of the need for roots and communal allegiances and aware, too, of their specious allure. Helen may have broken with her exasperating mother, but unless she returns home to confront her, she can never be truly free of her past. Her rebellion will just be the mirror image of her dependence. Disavowing your past is no more mature than idealising it. There is an important political lesson for modern Ireland here, as Helen turns back to her past not so as to dwell morbidly within it, but to draw it into her present and future. Lily returns with Helen to Dublin to meet her daughter’s family for the first time, and the novel is audacious enough to end on a tentatively happy note.
Standing on the Wexford seashore, Helen hears ‘a sound that was almost remote, a sound that, she believed, had nothing to do with her and had no connection to anything she knew, the quiet crashing of a wave’. Later, in the novel’s only full-dress metaphysical moment, she has a Hardyesque vision of the sea as not needing her to watch it, part of a Nature which would roll on whether people were around or not. Tóibín’s spare, scrupulous style tries to see things as though nobody was looking at them, to grasp them in themselves, not as filtered by the man-made, or even the human. The novel notes at one point that traditional Irish musicians play as though to please themselves, without thought of impressing an audience, and much the same could be said of its own meticulously honest prose.
It is, in short, post-colonial rather than colonial Irish writing. In the Celtic Revival period before political independence, Irish prose was typically elevated, extravagant, mythopoeic, laced with surreal fantasy or utopian symbolism. It was the style of an aspirant revolutionary nation, as insecure as it was effervescent. One could hear in this rollicking rhetoric the bluster of the underdog, as the Irish tried to compensate for their political marginality with verbal brio. If their language belonged to the English, then they would have to use it in an estranging way, defiantly asserting their cultural difference. Though some of this survived independence, it gradually gave way to the plainer, more disenchanted idiom of Patrick Kavanagh, or the self-parodic minimalism of Samuel Beckett, so fearful of writing Hiberno-English that he ceased to write in English altogether.
Colm Tóibín’s austere, monkish prose, in which everything is exactly itself and redolent of nothing else, belongs to this anti-Revivalist legacy, as do his political opinions. The novel explores ambiguous feelings in an unambiguous world. Its matter-of-fact portrayal of Declan’s physical decay intensifies the horror of it without being contrivedly clinical, which would be the mere inverse of sentimentalism. There are times when one wishes this tight-lipped author would break out of his extreme verbal evenness for some more costly imaginative gesture; Roddy Doyle has called his writing ‘daring and precise’, but this is only 50 per cent accurate. Even so, it is a style marvellously adept at registering the sheer contingency of things: how one light-switch is firm and hard while another needs only a small flick, how difficult it is to find a convenient hospital car park even when you have a dying man in the back of your car. The novel shows us discreetly what a practical, complicated matter dying is, how much logistics and paraphernalia it requires, and its unflinchingly exact style is a kind of respect paid to this. The commonplace and the catastrophic lie cheek-by-jowl, as Helen notes that the specialist treating her desperately sick brother seems to have had a pudding-bowl haircut. Few pieces of fiction remind us so unpreachingly that in the midst of death we are in life.
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