A dynamic, many-tendriled drama (on the Booker short list last year) by Irish writer Tóibín (The Story of the Night, 1997, etc.) shapes a complex view of intergenerational conflict at once modern and timeless, as a family assemble on the coast of Ireland to tend to one of their own, a young man losing ground in his struggle with AIDS.
Helen has just packed off the husband and kids for a few days so that she can focus on hiring a teacher, as well as on her other administrative duties, at the end of a school term, when a stranger comes to her door to say that her brother is in the hospital, wanting to see her. Declan hasn’t wanted to tell Helen that he has AIDS, but now, as the disease approaches its ravaging endgame, he needs her to know: what he needs is for Helen to tell their mother and bring her to him. Helen is more estranged from Lily than Declan is, but she does as asked and fetches her mother from work. Declan wants to leave the hospital and go to his grandmother’s house seaside, where he and Helen spent a painful period of their youth while their father was dying from cancer. But he also wants his two closest gay friends to accompany him, and as this volatile mix settles in to the damp old house on a crumbling cliff, remarkable things happen. Worlds apart as they all seem at first, old and young, gay and straight, there are ties that bind them—not least their shared love for Declan—and in this respite from the mundane routines that would otherwise consume each of them, Lily’s own long-unscalable cliffs of detachment begin to crumble, so that at last Helen and her brother can glimpse the mother they once knew and need so desperately now.
In some ways reminiscent of playwright O’Neill’s familial Sturm und Drang, this masterfully intense tale of woe and redemption has much to say about the primal forces that shape us.