Books: Lonely passion of grandmother, mother and daughter

The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tibn Picador pounds 15
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Towards the end of Colm Tibn's latest novel, Helen O'Doherty, its dominant consciousness, takes a walk along the shore at dawn. At such an hour, she thinks: "the sea was more itself, monumental and untouchable. It was clear to her now, as though all week had been leading up to the realisation, that there was no need for people, that it did not matter whether there were people or not." Indeed, she feels, "it might have been better if there never had been people."

For to Helen, in her sombre mood, suffering appears the central truth about human life, and that it should do is understandable. Reunited with her grandmother and mother in the former's house by the sea near Wexford, after years of estrangement, and made mindful by these two older women of the multiple pains of her past - her father's death from cancer, her mother's proud, loftily borne grief that froze her maternal impulses - Helen has been witness all week to her brother Declan's agonised, unstoppable and physically humiliating decline towards death: he has Aids. Contemplated against the background of sea and rocky strand, the virus that is devastating this loved young man seems to lack ultimate significance and reality, as do all emotions entertained in the teeth of it. There is every temptation then to envisage a world where "the glistening sea and the morning breeze" happen without observers, "without anyone feeling, or remembering, or dying, or trying to love".

And yet the whole novel, of which Helen's reactions are so strong and integral a part, would seem to prove her wrong. The Blackwater Lightship is a courageous, passionately articulated affirmation of the meaningfulness of human life, with all its imperfections and miseries. The unhappiness of her grandmother and mother, her father's fears before dying so prematurely, the ravages of the Aids virus upon the once so graceful Declan - these deeply matter, however brief and unresolved their duration.

Colm Tibn - all too unusually among contemporary writers - has, from his first novel (The South, 1990), viewed his characters as dual entities: as physical beings who know pain and decay, who are in truth totally helpless against these, and as spiritual beings who protest at this fact, even while, on a bodily and empirical level, accepting it. In this he shows himself heir to Catholic tradition, and indeed Tibn's relationship with Catholicism is very interesting. Far more than is the case with older Irish writers (Tibn was born in 1955), he would seem - in his fiction at any rate - to see Catholic culture in Ireland as a great invaluable repository of practices (not excluding prayer) which have arisen expressly to deal with the vast gamut of human experiences. In The Blackwater Lightship - though Helen herself stands consciously aloof from actual profession of religion - the people move in and out of Catholicism. There is a most moving scene in which four of the book's characters, at a time of anguish, attend Mass together; one feels this is not only convincing, but instructive: sooner or later all of us meet situations of distress, sooner or later all of us need help from our forebears and therefore from institutions representing them. All three of Colm Tibn's previous novels have presented us - in intense and graphic terms - with distress, the impossibility of evading it, and the sources of strength we can find within and without. And in Ireland the Church is an inextricable part of that "without". Of the earlier books The Heather Blazing (1992) is for me the most powerful and the most beautifully wrought, but I believe The Blackwater Lightship - in its moral authority, its knowledge of human behaviour, and its literary control - to be a still finer work.

The territory of the novel is that with which The South and The Heather Blazing have already made us familiar - County Wexford, the writer's own Enniscorthy and the coast from Blackwater to Rosslare. Its characters come from the middle class, and respectively embody important attributes of it. Dora (the grandmother), talkative yet now alone, has run a guesthouse near the strand; Lily (the mother), so ambivalent, not to say riven, in her attitudes, manages Wexford Computers Limited , while Helen is Ireland's youngest school principal, married to Hugh, a teacher in an Irish-speaking school. The opening scenes have something pastoral about them; in Dublin, Hugh gives a party which celebrates the Irish arts before going to visit his mother, taking their two young sons with him. With hindsight we see this occasion as the last before suffering demands due acknowledgement as the indomitable power of sensate life, against which neither cherished tradition (Hugh) nor progressivism (Helen) can prevail. For, the next morning, Helen has a visitor, one of her brother's friends; he is the means by which she is brought back to Declan, now dying of Aids.

The greater part of the novel is concerned with the feelings and conduct of the three women of different generations and temperaments. Ill at ease with one another ,in one not very comfortable house, they deal with Declan with a near-unbearable intimacy, and with the tutelary company of two friends of his who, to their chagrin, know him much better then they do. Paul and Harry are familiar with Declan's world and share his sexuality, something all three woman had failed to recognise. With technique recalling cinema Tibn presents us with Declan's sufferings as the women, in particular Helen, confront them. And yet mysteriously we feel with these women emotions other than dismay, horror or even grief; we find instead that we have arrived at that plane from which we can see reality for what it is. The experience is made the more engulfing by Tibn's uncanny ability to maintain, against all these assaults on the corporeal being, the personality (or is it soul?) of his characters, even Declan, outwardly degraded by dying but still somehow delightful.

I believe that we shall be reading and living with The Blackwater Lightship in 20 years. I know of no novelist under 50 who is Tibn's equal. And in this, his fourth book, his prose rises to heights of an extraordinary beauty. "A line of sea birds flew a hand's distance above the calm water. And as each wave came in, it looked as though it might not break, but merely casually spill in and then get sucked back, but every time there came the inevitable lift and curl and a sound that was 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."