Caught Between Past and Present in an Irish Landscape

COLM TOIBINS first novel, "The South," won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Award - no small feat in a country with a strong literary heritage. His new novel, "The Heather Blazing," gracefully depicts the beauty and loneliness of the Irish experience.

Eamon Redmond, an Irish judge, is trying to make sense of his life. His family was in the fight for Irish independence. They were members of the Fianna Fail. The old men are described as the last of the old Fenians, the fierce mythological Irish warriors, the same name used by the later group who fought English rule.

But where have these battles brought Eamon? They don't seem to have given him any personal independence. Daily modern life crowds in upon him, and the politics of the day are more querulous and led by shallower leaders.

The Fianna Fail party has made him a judge in the Four Courts of Dublin. But he's not the man his ancestors were. He's grown old, passive, introspective. His legal senses have dulled. Then he's given the chance to take a brave departure from the cramped way Irish law affects women.

A pregnant girl is fighting her school's decision to throw her out. Since the Irish Constitution defines the family as the most elevated institution in the land, Eamon could, he thinks, decide that this girl and her unborn child are indeed a family. Thus their rights would outweigh the school's. In the end, he takes the conventional way out, though he knows it to be unfair.

He escapes Dublin to the West of Ireland with his wife, Carmel, where he wanders the ageless seacoast cliffs. Even here the sea is cutting away below, and from time to time the old farm cottages are undercut and tumble down into the waves. Eamon is caught between the past and the present.

Facing death, Eamon's wife, who has been the most loyal of companions, tells him that she has to talk to him about the most basic question of marriage: After all their years together, she is unsure of his love. Because of his reserved, almost cold, character, she has never known him. He professes not to understand this and says he has always loved her. "I have had this conversation in my mind so many times...," she replies. With just a few words, Toibin says so much about their marriage.

Eamon hangs on to old bitter opinions until it's nearly too late. Finally, when almost all else is lost to heartbreak, he is redeemed, more or less, with the arrival of a grandchild. It's an unexpectedly gentle and rewarding resolution.

Toibin's characters are sketched lightly but with care, like Irish conversation where the main point is arrived at by indirection. Things happen more slowly in Ireland. Toibin shows remarkable dexterity in balancing the events of his characters' lives with the stories of their past.

Toibin, who is rapidly emerging as a principal Irish writer, writes with a good deal of humor. The book laughs at itself and brings old Irish stories into the conversations.

For example, one character tells the story of an uneducated young man who was not allowed to succeed his father as the village gravedigger because he could neither read nor write.

He emigrated to America where he struck oil and got rich. But in his business dealings, the young man still had to rely on others to read his contracts.

" `Here you are one of the richest men in American and you can't sign you name. Where would you be if you could read and write?' he was asked.

`A gravedigger in Ireland,' was the reply."

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