Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

THE HEATHER BLAZING by Colm Tóibín – a review

The book is divided into three parts and within each part, the past is interleaved with the present. Each section begins with the judge's departure from Dublin for the summer. On the second occasion his wife is again with him. The judge finds out at the last minute that they are to be accompanied by their daughter and the baby. The news makes him uneasy. He has just delivered a judgment with which he himself is uncomfortable and which he knows will meet with the disapproval of his wife and his daughter; and yet it appears to him to be the only possible judgment in the circumstances. He is aware, because of the facts of the case, that the presence of his daughter who has not, he believes, 'felt any affection for him since her early teens' will make things worse. In the car, the baby cries and the judge avoids turning on the radio. He doesn't want the two women to hear the news which will carry coverage of the judgment. He doesn't want to discuss it with them. He would rather they never heard the judgment at all and that he could be spared the effort of defending it. During the second visit to Cush, the succumbing of Eamon's father to a stroke during Mass is described and this is one of the most moving episodes of the book, for Eamon, the boy, is with his father when he is taken ill. The church is crowded and when his father is lifted out of the church, Eamon is unable to follow because the aisle is blocked by latecomers. Eamon can't find his father when he goes outside after Mass. He doesn't know what to do. He has been forgotten and he goes home. He comforts himself by thinking that maybe his father fainted, but he is unsure. He cooks his dinner, he works on his Latin homework, then he looks out the window at the darkening day. Eventually he fetches a blanket from upstairs and goes to sleep on the sofa. It is dark before people come looking for him and he is packed off to the house of relatives while his father is in hospital. His father survives, but his speech is impaired. He continues his job as a schoolteacher and his son must endure the mocking of his father by some of his school companions and the embarrassment of others. Once, on an evening of uncharacteristic intimacy, Eamon described to his young wife Carmel the recurring occasions of guilt he suffered when his father, struggling to make himself understood in the classroom, would catch his son's eye and it would be all his son could do not to look away.

On the judge's third departure from Dublin, he travels alone, for his wife is now dead – also from a stroke. One of the tragedies in the book is that Carmel never becomes aware of the depth of her husband's attachment to her. After her death, Eamon's loss is so overwhelming that he cannot sleep in the house at Cush – he is forced to make himself a bed in the back of his car (rather in the way that he made himself a bed on the sofa when his father was taken ill). 'He believed in nothing now, no soul, no cloudy spirit offered him consolation. He believed that death was absolute, the body died and became dust.' In an attempt to numb the pain, he walks day in, day out, with a picnic, his bathing togs and a raincoat in a rucksack, until his feet are blistered; he
enters the house each day only long enough to take a shower. In his reveries, his wife is alive and they are together doing the simplest of things – shopping for food, buying wine for a special dinner. Whereas in the earlier sections we saw episodes from Eamon's childhood, during these deliberately exhausting walks, the judge reveals key moments of his life with his wife. He recalls how once in the initial year of their marriage, when pregnant with their first child, Carmel had succeeded in persuading Eamon to reveal something of himself to her. His aunt and his uncle were up from the country on a visit to Dublin. Eamon and Carmel had taken them out to dinner and Eamon's relations had been, it was apparent, impressed by the fact that their nephew and Charlie Haughey (a major political figure at the time) were on more than casual speaking terms. The evening had been more pleasant than the young man had anticipated – it is, after all, gratifying to have one's importance highlighted so emphatically to those who have known you since childhood. But later that night when he and Carmel had made love in their flat, she complains of his distance. He is taken aback and then compounds the distance by asking can he think about it and talk about it later. Despite his reluctance to engage with his wife she manages to persuade him to talk the following night after dinner and wine. After describing the most painful aspects of his childhood, he confesses to her that he has 'never asked anyone for anything. I think I feel that if I did I would be turned down.''By me?''I don't believe that anyone has ever wanted me,' he said and turned away. There were tears in his eyes.

Later, they lay on their bed together 'in all their clothes, holding each other', but this evening of intimacy so long ago was not sufficient to transform the tenor of their marriage. As Carmel was suffering her second, and as it turned out, terminal stroke, she again complains of his distance, telling him how she wants things between them, even now, to change. Again Eamon cannot respond as she would wish. He is incapable of it. He tells her he loves her and he listens to her voice, impaired by her stroke, but quite comprehensible, saying what she had been steeling herself to articulate for months. Then he says that he will think about what she said and goes to another room.

In this final section, there is, however, a glimmer of future hope for the late blossoming of the judge's undoubted humanity. His children are worried about him and come to visit him – it is obvious that he would rather they left him alone, but Niamh and her young child stay on and she and her father reach a new accommodation. The child is difficult and at first makes strange with his grandfather. Gradually the judge wins the child's confidence – introducing him to the simplicity of playing with a bowl of water (something he remembers Carmel producing for their own children) – and the book ends with the judge carrying his grandson out of the sea on his shoulders, while his daughter swims in the distance.

Gabrielle Warnock is the award winning author of two novels:
Fly in a web
The Silk Weaver

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