In 1991, Irish writer Colm Tóibín's first novel, The South, was awarded the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize, while in 1999, his third book, The Blackwater Lightship, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Between these two books was one of quiet intensity – The Heather Blazing – set in the same area of Wexford as the book which it preceded.
The subdued tone of The Heather Blazing captures to painful perfection the caution with which the subject of the book, a High Court judge from a Fianna Fáil background, has addressed the effort of personal communication since his earliest childhood days. His reaction to the news that his daughter is pregnant, imparted to him by his wife Carmel as they drive down to their summer house in county Wexford after his final day in the Four Courts in Dublin before the summer recess, is an early indication of the unease the judge feels on being confronted by a situation to which a personal response is required. The pregnancy was not planned; their daughter had gone to England to have an abortion, but had been unable to carry her intention through. Her mother is upset by the fact that she had noticed nothing and that her daughter has been coping alone with the distress of what has befallen her. The pregnancy is not of tragic proportions; it is, nevertheless, a situation calling for discussion, or, at the very least, an affirmation between husband and wife of the affection and concern that they both have for their daughter. But Eamon barely speaks and when his wife eventually asks him what he thinks, he replies, 'It doesn't matter what I think.' 'It's so hard to talk to you sometimes,' his wife tells him. It is not the first time in their married life that Carmel has made such an observation. As the reader later discovers, his wife feels that she has never known him; she even fears that he is cold – and yet a genuine strand of affection is evident between them. Tóibín has written a poignant exploration of a withdrawn personality. What Eamon has accepted as enough is inadequate for most people, including his family.
The book is also an intimate description of a threatened landscape. Cush is the seat of the judge's interior world both present and past. The house at Cush on a crumbling, sandy cliff is where he came each summer as a child and here he and his wife, also from the area, now spend their summers quietly together. The front section of a neighbouring house has fallen down the cliff in the past year, but their own house is safe for some time yet. In Cush, while his wife visits old friends, the judge prefers to walk, to swim, to listen to music and read the year's law reports. He is a man who would rather be alone, a preference which fits in easily with his professional position as judge. He notes that he has never heard the people of the area speak ill of one another – but recognises that he is an outsider and a judge and has no idea what they might say if he wasn't present. His reserve, even within his own family, is apparent from the first morning in Cush; twice he wishes to touch his wife – at breakfast, for instance, he wants to reach across the table and hold her hand – but he doesn't follow up on his desire on either occasion. Gradually, through the judge's recollections, the pain of his childhood during the 1940s and 1950s is revealed in small, sedate sentences. None of the pain was deliberate. His mother died when he was a baby. In Eamon's words to his wife, 'She is just someone who wasn't there.' Eamon's father, a school teacher, looked after his son and they led an uneventful life together. They boy attended his father's classes. 'He learned to wait, to be quiet, to sit still.' But he was a naturally cautious child, 'careful not to sit on the cold cement in case he got a cold, and not to get into fights. He was allowed to bring other boys into the house, but they had to play quietly. Often when they left to go home and have their tea, he felt relieved. He had the house to himself again and could sit opposite his father and work at his lessons.' A warm family Christmas in the house of his grandparents is followed by a terrible January. His grandfather dies. On the night of his grandfather's burial, his young tubercular uncle Stephen 'takes a turn' and is dead before morning. When his father tells him of Stephen's death, 'he turned away. He did not want his father watching him across the room. He shut his eyes. His father came over and touched him on the shoulder. He wanted to turn towards his father, but he kept his eyes shut and his fists clenched.'