Books: Shining in the darkness

Richard Canning admires a brilliant illuminator of troubled family life; The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tibn Picador, pounds 15, 263pp
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AT FIRST glance, Colm Tibn's fourth novel consolidates the achievements of its much-praised predecessor, The Story of the Night. Many saw the latter - with its themes of Aids, gay identity and mortality, and its Argentinian setting - as marking a clear shift from the concerns of Tibn's Irish domestic dramas, The South and The Heather Blazing.

While Aids features prominently, too, in The Blackwater Lightship, we are firmly on Tibn's native soil. Declan Devereux, long exiled in cosmopolitan Dublin's gay life, returns to his childhood home in the deeply conservative rural South. Seropositive for some years, Declan is now gravely ill and expects to die.

His homecoming is, inevitably, also a coming out. For morale, Declan takes two gay friends with him. Interaction between these and three generations of the Devereux matriarchy comprises the meat of this dialogue-rich novel.

The informality of the novel's plot works entirely to Tibn's advantage. Within it, the matriarchy - Declan's sister Helen, their mother Lily and grandmother Dora - struggles both with the intrusion of the crisis-bearing protagonists and with the dormant tensions in the family which the extreme situation brings into play.

The Blackwater Lightship is no narrow work. Tibn is not concerned with easy oppositions, nor with reaching after pieties about gay and familial mores. Too intelligent and subtle to pursue the obvious resolutions of many other narratives on this subject, he uses the situation to sketch masterfully the awkward and schismatic evolution - personal, domestic and political - of contemporary Irish society.

Helen, it transpires, has more strongly jeopardised her position within the family by reproducing its orthodoxies with her own husband and children. All too often, according to these "family values", progeny is deemed property. Declan, contrastingly, has taken for granted the liberty afforded to sons while concealing his sexuality - so securing his evident status as favoured offspring.

Their mother Lily is both victim and perpetrator of the constricting familial ideology. The generation gap lends Dora an easy rapport with the gay visitors - and a vital sense of superiority over her daughter - but cannot conceal the stubborn retention of prejudice. (She refers throughout to the surprise of Declan turning out to be "one of yours".)

Tibn forces together divergent, deeply-felt notions of ethics, propriety and the essence of Irishness, certainly - but also of humanity itself. Cleverly, he refuses the easy pay-off of a pathos-laden death-bed scene, though the novel, set before the emergence of protease inhibitors, offers Declan little hope. As he deteriorates, the sense of impasse between all present builds. Helen is aware that "the signals in the room, the connections, were too tangled and complex now".

Bravely, and movingly, Tibn allows Helen's own fate in the family to come to dominate the novel. Declan's demise will bring her the primacy she has long envied. However, this in turn leaves her more confined by familial duty than ever: "she could not step from her mother's dark shadow".

The Blackwater Lightship is a mature, philosophical work which moves stylishly between dialogue, introspection and objective narration in a manner reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, to which its title surely nods. Tibn's seemingly equivocal philosophy and magisterial probing of his characters' sensibilities further bring to mind early Iris Murdoch, whose doses of mordant humour he also shares. The novel perhaps affirms little, except the appropriateness of Helen's lifelong equating of love with loss. Its poetic melancholy, however, is honest, tactful and mature, and confirms Tibn's emergence as a major talent. It deserves your attention, and much acclaim.

Richard Canning teaches at Sheffield University and is writing an account of Aids in fiction. Colm Toibin will be interviewed next Saturday in The Independent