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)

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