Com Tóibís interest in describing landscape is clear in The Heather Blazing, as it is in his previous novel The South (1990) and in his travel books Homage to Barcelona (1990) and Walking Along the Border (1987). To the main character of The Heather Blazing, Eamon Redmond, whose point of view structures the novel, the physical presence of nature is a continual lure to his attention, especially in Cush on Ireland’s east coast, where he goes with his wife, Carmel, every summer to vacation when the term of the High Court in Dublin is over. Once in Cush, Eamon spends his time reading up on the law, walking on the strand, and swimming in the sea.
The novel is in three parts. Each begins with a legal proceeding on which Eamon must make a judgment and ends with an event that elicits his personal feelings. The chapters alternate between Eamon’s current and past life.
The first case concerns whether a mentally disabled child has the right to indefinite free hospital treatment. Eamon rules no, deciding in favor of the state over the individual in accordance with the Irish constitution as he sees it. Then he and Carmel drive to Cush for their summer vacation. On the way, Carmel tells him that their unmarried daughter, Niamh, is pregnant.
Thus the first chapter shows Eamon with little sympathy for the child whose case he judges and indifferent to the child his daughter is carrying. Chapter two shows Eamon himself as a child. Here one begins to see why he becomes “so hard to talk to,” as Carmel tells him. He is an only child, and his mother dies before he knows her. In secondary school, as a student in the class his father teaches, he learns “to wait, to be quiet, to sit still.” In Enniscorthy, the town they live in, his father writes for the local newspaper and is a political organizer for the Fianna Fail Party. Finding himself constantly on the outskirts of his father’s life, young Eamon becomes extremely studious. World War II throws a kind of shadow over his existence: It is on people’s minds much more than he is.
The house in which the adult Eamon spends his summer vacations goes back to this period of his life. At first it belongs to the Cullen family, but later Eamon buys it, and over the years the sea gradually encroaches on the cliff on which it stands. Nearby, his cousin Mike’s house has lost its entire front to the eroding cliff.
Like the sea, death eats away at one’s family and other things one cherishes. Young Eamon first experiences this kind of death at the end of part 1. His grandfather’s death is followed almost immediately by that of Eamon’s Uncle Stephen, a victim of tuberculosis. The boy is not allowed to see either corpse; when his father comes to comfort him, Eamon keeps his grief to himself.
Throughout his life, Eamon is surrounded by family and friends, yet remains deeply isolated. Carmel keeps-and keeps him- in touch with his aged Aunt Margaret, informs him about their daughter, and is a warm companion to him, but though he responds to her and listens to his aunt, he holds himself in reserve rather than flowing out on any tide of emotion. As a child, he plays cards in the Cullens’ busy house in the summer and is immersed in family activities at his grandparents’ house at Christmas. Yet playing cards well is a mental exercise that calls for secrecy, and this is what he likes about it.
During summers in Cush, Carmel reads novels because they express feeling, but Eamon reads law reports because they exercise his mind, his interest in history. He is following the pattern of his father, who graded examinations during vacations. The men in the novel, in fact, pursue the secrets of politics while the women tell the secrets of family. The men tend to be guarded and the women outgoing.
That Eamon is all but insufferably cautious and distant is especially brought out by the case he judges at the beginning of part 2. A pregnant girl has been dismissed by the Catholic school she attended, and Eamon rules in favor of the school, arguing that the Irish constitution is based on the idea of God, which means that institutions based on this idea have rights that supersede an individual’s. Though the concept of family is also basic to the constitution, the plaintiff...
(The entire section is 1767 words.)