“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”
Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.
Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.
Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.
“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.
None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.
Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…
Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.