Monday, February 25, 2008

The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin

The Heather Blazing by Colm Toibin is a deeply emotional, deeply moving book. It’s the story of Eamon Redmond, a complex man, grown on tender roots, influential friends, a keen intellect and a tangible distance between himself and those whom he loves. The book is set in three parts, each of which dips in and out of time. 

We are with Eamon as a child in the small Wexford seaside villages he forever regards as home. Coastal erosion changes them over time and provides, in itself, a metaphor of aging, both of the individual and the community. Eamon’s schoolteacher father is a significant figure, both locally as a renowned teacher, and nationally as a result of what he accomplished in his youth in the furtherance of Irish independence and political development. Eamon’s mother died when he was young, an act for which, perhaps, he could never forgive her. 

We also see Eamon as an adolescent, hormones abuzz, becoming aware of adulthood, a physical, intellectual and, for him, a political transformation. But it is also a time when his father’s illness complicates his life. Throughout, we are never sure whether Eamon’s perception of such difficulty remains primarily selfish, driven by self-interest. If we are honest, none of us knows how that equation works out. 

We are with Eamon when he meets Carmel, his future and only wife. They share a political commitment and a life together. And they have two children. Naimh becomes pregnant at a crucial time. Donal is successful in his own way, but perhaps inherited his father’s distance in relationships. And then there’s another time and another Eamon, the professional, the legal Eamon. At first he practices law, but later, at a relatively early age, he accepts a politically-driven appointment to the judiciary. He has powerful sponsors, but also toys a little with the idea that he is being kicked upstairs. The moment, however, is his, no matter how dubious the source of the patronage. 

And then there are the cases that he has to judge, cases that impact in their own way upon the substance of his own life, his own family, whatever that might be, however the entity might be defined. It remains a substance that is perceived mainly by others, it seems, as he enacts his training and judges other people’s experience according to rules he has dutifully learned so that he might apply them dispassionately. 

So Colm Toibin mixes these time frames and circumstances in each of the book’s three sections. We are also presented with some intellectual arguments arising from the substance of the judge’s daily routine, issues with which he must grapple in his assessment of competing interests. Eventually he must address the dichotomy of terrorism versus political action, a definition that, years ago, might have left his own father on this side or that, if ever he had been identified. Eamon’s friends, in hindsight, might not have been the most worthy or honest sponsors, and so, again only with hindsight, we might question his judgment. But the pursuance of interests, like life, itself, is a process, and a process that The Heather Blazing describes in its richness and illusory permanence. 

As the Wexford coast erodes, Eamon ages, changes, succeeds, fails, loves and loves again, all in his own way. He engages us, and yet we, like the trusting, thoughtful Carmel, his wife, we never really know him, and we never really understand why we feel that way. If only he knew himself. A quite beautiful book. Life goes on. 

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