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Sunday, August 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Blackwater Lightship' is rich, vital

Special to The Seattle Times

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"The Blackwater Lightship"

By Colm Toibin

Scribner, $24

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After a decade of estrangement Helen O'Doherty, her mother and her grandmother have temporarily reunited in order to tend Helen's brother Declan, who is dying of AIDS. The family gathers at the grandmother's old house on the Irish coast, and though rancors arise after long suppression, at least the three women feel love and grief for Declan in common. They are also drawn out of themselves by the task of hosting gay men they've never met before, Declan's friends Larry and Paul, who for three years have nursed him through his sickest times.

In "The Blackwater Lightship," Colm Toibin's fourth novel, these six characters are thrown together with all their differences, fears and resentments as if into a lifeboat. At the center is Helen, who long ago decided that she could survive only if she never visited her mother or grandmother and never let herself feel anything about them again.

Helen's isolation began when she was 11 and had to deal with her father's illness and death virtually alone - she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother's house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She "trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be." But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life.

As the novel opens, Helen has stopped fooling herself into believing she's happiest when alone and can admit how lucky and grateful she feels to belong to a family - an affectionate marriage, two healthy sons. Still, she resists full intimacy with her husband, and now she's faced with the two women she most wanted to avoid.

Throughout the narrative, the characters tell stories that subtly alter their relationships to each other and to their own experiences. Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o'clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony. Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that's in her apron pocket. Helen's mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father's last days. It turns out that each stubborn self and stuck relationship has a bit more give than one would think.

What gives not at all is the advance of Declan's AIDS. It's inexorable, like the Irish Sea eating at the bluff on which the old house sits.

Toibin is as patiently attentive to Declan's sufferings as he is to the details of each small mystery of the characters' ordinary days. Painful chapters with the sick man are made even more moving by their firm containment in the broader narrative of relationships, in particular the humorously affectionate yet contentious friendship of Paul and Larry. The narrative achieves unusual depths of feeling without a whiff of sentimentality.

And it achieves great complexity without murk or tangles. Toibin's light touch gives us crisp, clear, uncluttered moments with a spaciousness that lets the characters be themselves, mixing intention and randomness as real people do. The narrative is wonderful throughout, whether on the driving lessons Larry gives Granny or Helen's memory of the day before her father's funeral when she arranged on her parents' bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

Themes develop quietly, without explicit interpretation. Among other things, we see the redemptive possibilities in telling hard truths if, instead of walking out afterward, we stay with the people we told them to. But the subtlety and muted wonder Toibin brings to his creation of a world where such wisdom might be inferred can't be contained in abstract formulations. When you finish the story, you want to read it again because so much is here and you long to grasp it whole. Reading it again, you find a rich, unpredictable vitality that escapes, again, formulation's grasp.

It's the best new novel this reviewer has read all year.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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