Going gently

The Blackwater Lightship

Colm Toibin <em>Picador, 273pp, £15</em>

ISBN 0330389858

A list of nations where a man might be glad to be gay would stretch a long way down the page before Ireland earned its place. And to be gay and dying of an Aids-related illness in rural Wexford would not be most young men's preferred route of egress from the world. But such is the lot of Declan, the fulcrum of Colm ToibIn's Booker-shortlisted novel. In terminal decline, he asks to be taken from the relative tolerance of modern Dublin to spend his last days at his grandmother's remote cottage on the coast. He insists, too, that his mother, sister and two closest gay friends are there. Three generations of a family estranged for years and riven by repressed enmity are thus forced into an uneasy coalition of palliative care. Again, a hard way to die.

However, if the stereotypes of Ireland's social and moral mores are rooted in something more substantial than cliche, the pull of even the most diasporic Irish family is a fierce one. Never more so than in a crisis. While Declan is the spindle on which the other characters revolve, the story is propelled by his sister, Helen, whose viewpoint informs much of the narrative, and snapshots of the family's fraught past are filtered through her memory.

It is a visceral, unsparing depiction. For all her sympathetic generosity towards her brother's plight, Helen has issues of her own to resolve; the others, too, bring their preoccupations to the cottage. Declan focuses their attention on him, but also on their various relationships with him and with each other. Theirs, after all, are the lives that will continue once his ceases. ToibIn understands this human tension between selfishness and altruism when a loved one is dying. He knows that immune deficiency can also be emotional and that people build defences against infection. Or they withdraw from the risk of exposure. But emotional withdrawal isn't an option for the Blackwater six.

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand - close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse - permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere. This is another of ToibIn's strengths: a sensual impression of one of his earlier novels, The Heater Blazing, remains with me long after the plot and characters have become hazy. At its best, his fiction achieves a rare lyrical precision. But the writing is so rigorously pared down that the balance between sparseness and sterility can be a hard one to strike. Now and then, a flat passage of prose has a deadening effect. The protagonists' tendency, particularly Helen's, towards elaborate self-analysis may contribute to this. Some scenes are short on dialogue and deed, long on reflective introspection. This is not a plea for more action but for the author to trust the simple potency of the interaction of his characters.

Such quibbles, however, should not cast a pall over a fine, thoughtful and compassionate novel. The conflicts and compromises that surface between the women, complicated by the presence of Declan's mates, Paul and Larry, are expertly worked. And humour - evolving from camp Larry's unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit - leavens a sombre load. Declan's graphic deterioration in the final stages of his illness and its impact on those around him ought to move any reader. Those of us who have watched a loved one die will find it especially harrowing, and for anyone bereaved by Aids the denouement may be almost unbearable.