Helen lives a predictable, pleasant life, until suddenly a stranger turns up and tells her that her brother is sick--is, in fact, dying of AIDS in a nearby hospital. Declan wants to stay in their grandmother's cottage while he recuperates from his latest hospital stay. His sister, mother, and grandmother are thus thrown together in a small sea-shore cottage, forced into close quarters after a decade of estrangement. Two of his friends come to keep him company and look after his health, causing further moments of awkwardness.
Basically, six adults hang around a cottage for a few days, constantly splitting off to have one-on-one conversations with each other about the others, and about the past. Helen resents her mother who resents her own mother, and they all talk and think about it endlessly. Maybe these ruminations on what to do when you don't like or emotionally trust your family would feel more poignant or important if I identified with them more. As it was, it was all just really boring. Helen would walk along the shore, think about how cold the water looked, how strong and enduring the cliffs looked, and then come to some minor realization about her feelings for her mother. "I resented her for not being around when my father died," she realizes wonderingly. Rinse, repeat. Thrilling stuff.
My boredom with the complete lack of plot or conflict might have been alleviated if the characters read more believably. But alas, they're written, particularly Declan, Lily, and Dora, with broad strokes mixed with minutia. By the end of the book I knew that Declan liked self-service restaurants as a child, disliked carrots, and feared escalators, but I still had no idea what he did for a living, how he'd made the friends he did, or even his hobbies. It felt like his sole purpose in the story was to suffer and force Helen and their mother to have uncomfortable emotional moments together. He never felt like a person in his own right.
Although I felt Tóibín relied too heavily on the sea and the lighthouse as metaphors, without doing any heavy lifting of his own, some of the writing is lovely. But some is just crap. An example:
She put the car into gear and drove it slowly to the barrier. 'You need fifty pence. Do you have a fifty-pence piece?' she asked her mother.
Her mother searched through her bag and found a purse with loose change. She handed Helen a fifty-pence piece and Helen opened the window and put it in the slot. The barrier lifted.
'We should have gone to the other car park,' Helen said. 'You don't have to pay there.'
I assume he's trying to say something about the mundane details of survival persisting despite looming tragedy, but dear god is it boring to read.