BOOK REVIEW / A sentence beyond words: 'The Heather Blazing' - Colm Toibn: Picador, 14.99

FOR ALL that Ireland is a culture of language, much is concealed and unsaid. This is the theme of Colm Toibn's second novel.

Eamon Redmond is a judge, in charge of a landmark case in which he will decide that a pregnant girl who has had an abortion cannot return to her school. Behind the brutality of the decision is Redmond's own childhood, dominated by the loss of speech and the repression of feelings. The only child of a teacher with a barely spoken history of involvement in the events of 1916 and after, Redmond grows up motherless, absorbed in homework until his father has a stroke. The boy watches with shame and love his father's attempts to teach his classes, hardly intelligible at times as he struggles with his twisted tongue.

Grown-up, Eamon marries Carmen, a fellow activist in the Fianna Fail party, but he is past the capacity to express his feelings and his son and daughter grow up estranged. He approaches the case of the teenage girl with the dignity of logic, arriving at what he believes can be the only correct decision: the right of society is greater than that of the individual. Later Carmen herself has a stroke and eventually dies. The sea at their holiday home is eroding the land. Redmond is left with almost nothing except the possibility of a relationship with his young grandson and the memory of the fire of the past when the IRA set the heather alight.

Toibin's Catholic upbringing makes him concerned with what should be the only subject for any writer: revealed truth. His writing is pure and understated, with an almost complete absence of literary pretension - journalistic prose (and Toibn was once a reporter) which resonates with deeper meaning. The novel is narrated dispassionately and with deceptive simplicity, moving between the public figure of the judge in his study and the terrible deaths of childhood and after, the boy's growing sexual awareness, and hints of a kind of Irish history we know little of: it was Redmond's father's job, we discover, to travel up to Dublin to gain permission from headquarters for an IRA arson attack.

Toibn takes you into the heart of his characters' lives, describing the final sexual act of the ageing Redmond and Carmen before her muffled sounds express something worse than pleasure. It is impossible to read Toibn without being moved, touched and finally changed.