BOOK REVIEW / Just like old troubled times: 'The Heather Blazing' - COlm Toibin: Picador, 14.99 pounds

WHILE it is possible for critics to talk about the themes and contexts of modern Irish fiction, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that there is only one: the twitch upon the thread, the glance back over the shoulder to a turbulent history which still has the present in its grasp. The Easter Rising is to an Irish writer what Waterloo was to Thackeray. Consequently it comes as no surprise to find that Colm Toibin's account of a year in the life of a Dublin supreme court judge is as firmly rooted in the events of 1916 as a great historical novel.

Despite its contemporary setting, The Heather Blazing - the title comes, inevitably, from a rebel song - is a book of ghosts, uneasy wraiths from Judge Redmond's small-town childhood: a tubercular uncle coughing into bloody newspaper, the boy going with his father and the local priest to collect artefacts for the local museum, De Valera coming to speak at a political rally. The whole leads inexorably back to the War of Independence, house burnings and hunger strikes, and it is a mark of Toibin's skill that he should survive the comparisons with novels such as J G Farrell's Troubles or Iris Murdoch's The Red and the Green, the more so in that he favours plain narrative above modernist trickery.

Toibin's strength lies in a heightened awareness of both continuity and irony. The one leads him to juxtapose the stroke suffered by Redmond's wife with the judge's memories of his father falling ill for the first time at Mass. The other allows him to draw telling comparisons between the confidence of Redmond's professional judgements and the uncertainties of his personal life. He upholds the dismissal of an unmarried mother from her teaching job in a church school, yet his own daughter produces an illegitimate child. Similarly, his sentencing of border terrorists sits uneasily with the knowledge of his own family history.

Such waves of memory and connection give the novel its impetus: there is little else in the way of forward movement. Reserved and self-sufficient, Redmond is torn apart by his wife's death. His distress prompts some of the best passages in the book - the storing up of information which he will never be able to impart, pulling up the lock of the car door for a non-existent passenger. The novel ends with him entertaining his daughter and grandson at the family's coastal holiday home and achieving some sort of rapprochement.

Toibin's prose shares something of Judge Redmond's reserve. Spare and slightly buttoned-up, it suggests an unreasonable suspicion of luxuriance and 'fine writing'. This is a refreshing attitude when set against some recent excesses, although it has to be said that at one or two points The Heather Blazing cries out for a purple passage, or at any rate something to temper its persistent austerity.

Such imperfections are easily redeemed, though, by the set-pieces - the young Redmond preceding De Valera at the rally and thereby forging the political links that will sustain his career, a family Christmas at Enniscorthy. One is left with an abiding sense of historical connections. Oddly, I was reminded of a sentence in a novel by the late John Broderick (not a writer with whom Toibin has much in common). 'I thought it was over, like a fool,' says a character in The Rose Tree when hunted by an IRA gang. 'Nothing ever is in Ireland.' Though less immediately terrifying, Redmond's is the same problem. Toibin's treatment of it, done by way of deft scene-setting and exquisite dialogue, is a small masterpiece.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence