The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

Weighed in the balances…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the heather blazingOn the last day of the legal term, High Court judge Eamon Redmond will deliver a judgement and then head off for the summer to Cush on the coast of County Wexford, where he has spent all his summers since childhood. Outwardly he is a successful man, well respected in the country, an advisor to the government, and someone who takes the responsibility of his position seriously. But he is also reserved, his life ruled by order, and somewhat remote even from his closest family. As the summer progresses, he finds events in the present force him to revisit and re-assess his past.

Like so many of Tóibín’s books, this is almost entirely a character study with very little in the way of plot. Generally speaking, that doesn’t work for me, but Tóibín’s deceptively plain prose and in-depth understanding of the people and communities he’s writing about exert an almost hypnotic effect on me, drawing me into the lives of the people he offers up for inspection – characters so entirely real and well-drawn that it becomes hard after a time to think of them as in any way fictional. This effect is magnified by his siting of so many of his novels in and around the town of Enniscorthy, where Tóibín himself grew up – a place whose culture and society I have gradually come to feel I understand almost as intimately as my own hometown.

History plays a major role in this book, both personal and political. Eamon’s mother died in childbirth leaving him an only child to be brought up by his father and extended family. His grandfather was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and his father too played a part, albeit small, in the troubled history of the country. Through them, Eamon is introduced early to the politics of Fianna Fáil, and the opportunity in his late teens to make a speech in front of the revered leader of the uprising, Éamon de Valera, gains him the support that sets him on the path to his present position. Yet now decades later, he is a pillar of the Establishment, delivering judgements on Nationalist terrorists.

begorrathon 2016

The same dichotomy exists in his personal life. The judgement he is about to give is on a schoolgirl, an unmarried mother, who wishes to go back to school. The Catholic school has expelled her on the grounds that her return would send a dangerous moral message to their other pupils. His musings show his doubts over the religious aspects built into the Constitution, and in his own ability to decide right and wrong. He considers using his judgement to redefine the family as it was understood when the Constitution was written, but in the end, through a kind of cowardice, he decides in favour of the school. It is a feature of his remoteness that he gives no consideration to the fact that his own daughter is pregnant and unmarried when reaching his decision – this is a man whose work and family are kept in strictly separate compartments.

Tóibín’s prose is always understated, relying on precision and clarity rather than poetic flourishes for its effect. Despite this, there is a deep emotionalism in his work, an utter truthfulness that can be, in its quietness, as devastating as any great overblown work of drama. In a book full of parallels, Eamon’s story is headed and tailed by two commonplace tragedies – his father’s stroke while Eamon was still at school, and his wife’s stroke and subsequent death in the present day. His early life is beautifully observed, with scenes such as the family gathering at Christmas showing all the depth of family and community in small town Ireland. And his courtship of Carmel, his future wife, is no Romeo and Juliet affair – it’s a truthful account of two young people coming together who share many of the same views on life and are able to compromise on the rest.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

It is in understanding Eamon’s childhood and early years that we come to understand the adult man, and in a sense his life and family history mirrors that of Ireland too – the tumultuous century of rebellions and civil strife drawing towards a quieter ending as Tóibín was writing in the early ’90s; the past not forgotten, the future not yet certain, the direction in the hands of those in power, many of whom would have to make major shifts in their political stance to achieve a hope of settled peace. Tóibín is never overtly political in his writing, but his deep insight into this society of Enniscorthy, built up layer on layer with each book he sets there, provides a microcosm for us to see the slow process of change taking place, the small shifts in attitude that gradually make the big political adjustments possible.

In truth, Eamon’s story didn’t resonate with me quite as deeply as Tóibín’s women, but I suspect that’s to do with my own gender rather than the book. Sometimes my lack of knowledge of Irish history left me feeling I wasn’t getting the full nuance of parts of the story. But it is another wonderful character study, moving and insightful, that adds a further dimension to Tóibín’s portrayal of this community. Coincidentally, I followed immediately on my reading of this book with Joyce’s Dubliners, and began to feel that, although Tóibín is working on small-town life and in full-length novels, in some ways his books have the same effect as Joyce’s stories – each one concentrating on a single aspect, but together building to give a complete and profound picture of a complexly intertwined society.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

This post is part of Reading Ireland Month 2016 – #begorrathon16 – being jointly hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff.

33 thoughts on “The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín

  1. This does sound like the sort of story you feel yourself getting drawn to as you read, FictionFan. Like you, I usually don’t think character study is enough. But every once in a while, in the right hands, with the right prose, it really works. Glad it did this time!

    • Yes, I can’t quite understand why Toibin works so well for me – he’s not my usual style of writer at all. I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that the community and people he writes about remind me so much of the places and people of my own youth, with the West of Scotland and Ireland being so connected.

    • Indeed! I think, apart from the fact that I’m female, it’s also because the Irish in my family comes from my mother’s side – my father’s family was more purely Scots, if there is such a thing. So Toibin’s women always make me think of my mother.

  2. Great review, FF! I am no fan of Toibin particularly – he writes very well but it’s not a style to my tastes, unfortunately. But interesting that you compare him to Joyce! (Looking forward to that review, of course 😉 )

    • Thanks, Lucy! 🙂 I can understand that – usually I’d find that understated style and total focus on character off-putting too, but somehow Toibin carries it off for me. I think it’s because the culture he’s speaking about is so like my own – they give me a feeling of nostalgia. Dubliners should be coming soon… when I get around to writing it!

  3. Hypnotic is a perfect word for Toibin’s prose – I haven’t read this one, but have it in a box somewhere as Toibin was my Dad’s favourite writer. I may have to look it out. Lovely review. I look forward to hearing what you thought of Dubliners!

    • I only started reading Toibin two or three years ago and am gradually working through his back catalogue – a wonderful writer! And I think they get better the more you read because he concentrates on the same community again and again, so you feel you know it so well. Dubliners coming soon!

    • Thank you! Yes, it all depends on the quality of the writing and the believability of the characters, and Toibin does both so well! I haven’t read a single book of his I wouldn’t recommend.

  4. I read this novel many years ago and had forgotten quite a few of the details, so it’s nice to be reminded of it here. Toibin is so good on characterisation, isn’t he? Lovely review.

    • Thank you! I only “discovered” Toibin two or three years ago and am thoroughly enjoying working gradually through his earlier books. His characterisation is brilliant – I always end up thinkng the books must be about real people because they just feel so authentic and well-rounded.

  5. Hmm, this one doesn’t sound too interesting, despite how well you’ve reviewed it, FF! I like stories that GO somewhere, rather than just describing scenery or studying characters. Probably just a flaw in me! As for Dubliners, I read about half of it before giving up. Golly, none of the stories I read really ended, you know, and I guess I’d just prefer knowing “the rest of the story.” Sigh.

    • Yes, generally these kind of character studies don’t work for me either, but there’s something about the way Toibin gets to the heart of both the people and the community that makes him work for me. I know what you mean about Dubliners – I felt that about a lot of the stories too. But some of them were more complete – I do like a beginning, a middle and an end! Overall, I enjoyed it, but not to the point of turning cartwheels… 😉

  6. This was my first Toibin read, picked up in Dublin 11 years ago now. It’s delightfully free of distracting plot turns, in favor of the slow revelation of what’s at the core of our protagonist and why. Indeed, he learns it as we do. I’ve been through the entire Toibin catalogue at this point, some more than once but not this one. So I’ll pull it off the shelf and set it out to dig into soon. Thanks for that, FF, and the lovely review.

    • Thanks, Matt! Yes, it’s the quality of his writing and the skill of how he reveals his characters – always warmly, never with that cruelty that sometimes happens in character studies – that makes him work for me. I would love to re-read some of them, but still have so many to read for the first time. He’s been one of the great pleasures of the last few years for me – it’s so nice to open a book confident it will be good!

  7. I haven’t read this one, but I’ve never read a book of his that I didn’t enjoy, so I’ll give this one a go.

    • I reckon he’s one of those that if you like one, you’ll like them all – he’s not one of these authors whose standard goes up and down. Each book is good on its own, but I find the more of them I read the more I get out of them. Enjoy!

  8. Wonderful review FF. I DO feel he is particularly splendid in writing his female characters. There is authenticity in them. He writes from a huge heart, and that makes his characters very real.

    You do realise, don’t you, that Toibin was another gift you gave me,(Testament of Mary) along with Flanery.

    Such BIG and wonderful introductions that I continue to forgive you for your savagery towards beautiful singing golden finches (and other savageries, probably far too numerous to mention) But I think we could both sit happily at a table with Toibin and Flannery. As long as they leave the chocolates alone.

    • Thank you, m’dear! Yes, his women are undoubtedly people who become part of my permanent literary family, which I’m not sure will be the case for poor Eamon. Though maybe he could be the quiet cousin in the corner who never says much…

      We went through a spate of finding these people together for a while, didn’t we? We seem to have got out of sync a bit since we started blogging. But it’s always a rare pleasure when we find a book we both love – I might even be willing to give Toibin or Flanery a chocolate – just one, though!

  9. A brilliant review of what sounds like another brilliant read from Tóibín – even better this one touches on the subjects that really interest me, the pregnant schoolgirl in a time when such things were hidden has me wanting to read this even more than Brooklyn now…

    • Thank you! But I don’t want to mislead you – the schoolgirl story is all done and dusted before he even sets off for Cush. Truthfully, I think you’d enjoy Brooklyn much more than this one…

  10. Thanks for reminding me that I have to download The Dubliners from my library. Haven’t read this one of Tóibín’s, and your review makes me want to. Another one lands on the stack!

    Off to re-read The Dead. Gonna start with the icing, not the cake. 😀

    “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” I’ll never forget that line, and I’ll never forget how masterfully Joyce changes POV in this story. We start with exposition that’s clearly from Lily’s POV and watch as the baton passes seamlessly from character to character.

    • The more I read of Toibin, the more I enjoy each one – it’s like going back to a place you love.

      A great story indeed, but I think my fave is probably Eveline – that feeling of being trapped. Or possibly An Encounter… I won’t know till I write my review and see which ones take over!

  11. I read this in December 2005, but I rememebered the title as I read your review. Want my review in full? Here goes:
    “Wow – this was a very powerful and assured book, I got a little lost in the politics but it didn’t really matter. A portrait of a man trapped within his need for self-sufficiency – it’s really moving when he makes a connection with a family member at the end. The bits about his wife are almost unbearably moving.”

    • Haha! Succint but informative! I remember fondly the pre-blogging days when my reviews clocked in at around 100 words! I often wonder if those extra 900 actually add anything. So… I’m guessing you found it quite moving, then? 😉

      • That was actually in one of my blogs – my ancient LiveJournal one, but my written one is the same, as I just checked. I did! But not enough to read anything else of his ever!

        • Well, to be honest, if this had been the first of his I’d read, I might not have been inspired to read the rest either. Both Brooklyn and Nora Webster are better books, I think, but I’m addicted to him now, so I love even the slightly less good ones…

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