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A Little Nearer Redemption

  • Date Submitted: 12/01/2014 06:18 AM
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A Little Nearer Redemption
By Rand Richards Cooper
Published: September 10, 2000
The New York Times

The Blackwater Lightship

By Colm Toibin.

273 pp. New York:

Scribner. $24.

In his 1995 book, ''The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe,'' the Irish journalist and novelist Colm Toibin claimed to discern a new optimism afoot in his native land. In recent decades, he wrote, the traditionally dour outlook of a populace ''desperate to hold on to the small improvements in their lot'' had given way to the confidence of ''a new generation wandering around on a Saturday night with no innate fear.'' For the first time, being young in Ireland meant growing up in a ''climate of hope.''

Testing this thesis is the business of Toibin's fourth novel, ''The Blackwater Lightship,'' which was a finalist for last year's Booker Prize. Set in Dublin and rural County Wexford, the novel summons three generations of an Irish family and lets them have at one another -- a clash of country versus city, conservative versus liberal, old ways versus new. At the center of the family skirmish stands Helen O'Doherty, a 31-year-old school principal living in Dublin with her teacher husband, Hugh, and their two little boys. Helen and Hugh are the enlightened young Irish: she consults books on parenting; he cooks; and when their 6-year-old catches them at lovemaking, they're able to joke about it. They have built an addition to their house, ''a large, square, bright room which served as kitchen and dining room and playroom.'' The room resembles their life -- spacious and cheery, comfortably handling a blurring of roles.

And yet there are shadows. Amid the ''sweet energy'' of her family, Helen feels a lurking ambivalence. She's troubled by obscure premonitions of failure in her marriage and by ''raw areas in her which were unsettled and untrusting.'' As her husband sings a rapturous Irish ballad at a party, she feels an ''urge to resist him, keep him at bay.''...

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