Colm Tóibín’s The Blackwater Lightship and dialogue

Around the halfway point of Colm Tóibín’s novel The Blackwater Lightship, the text undergoes a strange shift; for about a chapter or so, it becomes very dialogue-driven. This has thematic significance aswell as formally relevance, as it relates to the novel’s main character, Helen, becoming increasingly expressive regarding her feelings. She, and the characters around her, begin to speak more often, and at greater length. This has the effect of ensuring that the quiet, descriptive prose that usually characterises Tóibín’s fiction takes a back seat for a while, letting Helen and the others in Helen’s grandmother’s remote house in Wexford (her mother Lily, Helen’s brother Declan, and Declan’s friends, Larry and Paul), talk and talk.

And I sort of missed it, firstly because I think this uncomplicated, transparent writing is what Tóibín does best. He’s one of the few contemporary novelists I can read who isn’t being even slightly stylistically innovative without getting deeply, deeply bored. His capacity to dial down irony, which is usually caustically deployed by almost every other writer I read, to a barely detectable zero-level, and inhabit the same mental space as his characters, with all the deprivation of information that the writer usually lords over their creatures, is unparalleled, as far as the novels I’ve read go, but secondly because the dialogue in The Blackwater Lightship is decidedly ropey.

Exhibit A

“When my father died, half my world collapsed, but I did not know this had happened. It was as though half my face had been blown away and I kept talking and smiling, thinking that it had not happened, or that it would grow back.”

Exhibit B

“Yes, it must have been very frightening.”

The dialogue comes to be as rife as it does in order that Helen and everyone else in the house can bypass their prejudices, insecurities and hurts from the past. Everyone has an origin story, a reason why they erected their walls against the others, and everyone gets to tell it, with no small amount of self-reflection. One wonders if these characters are really so sealed off, how it was that they come to be so capable of outlining their interior landscapes in such white and black terms, and especially with a group of relative strangers (the family is a distant, estranged from one another type of family) in the gaff. I think they’re all holed up together for less than a working week, yet they’re all hugging it out by the third dinnertime.

This has the effect of purging each character of what might make them interesting. At a few points in the novel Helen fantasises about leaving her husband and flirts with other men. There’s even a rueful note to her thought that Paul, because of his homosexuality, is unlikely to be attracted to her. This is fun, and interesting characterisation, that makes Helen compelling and complicated, especially when it is sat next to the tension that exists between her and her mother and her father’s absence, until, it is revealed to be a cause of her mother and grandmother being cartoonish autocrats, straight outta Dickens. Even Paul, the hard-bitten and antisocial cynic, turns out be a lovesick lad with a heart of gold; his hard exterior is purely manufactured.

This is all part of The Blackwater Lightship’s belief in the talking cure of the Viennese School, attested to by the moment where Declan, in the last stages of succumbing to AIDS, calls out for his mother: ‘Mammy, mammy help me.’

‘He’s been wanting to say that for a long time,’ one character helpfully diagnoses, ‘or something like it. It’ll be a big relief for him.’ In case the significance of this is passing you by, Lily goes on to sing Declan a selection of lullabies. Declan, by the by, has spent the eighties as a gay man in London and I so desperately would have preferred to read a novel about his life. My mistake was perhaps reading this after the glory that was the defiantly unresolved family unit rendered in Anne Enright’s The Green Road. Read that again.


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