Colm Tóibín is one of a handful of contemporary writers whose new novels I begin waiting for as soon as I’ve finished their last. This has been true since I first encountered The Master, in the spring of 2005,on a table out front of a bookstore in Dublin off St. Stephen’s Green. I was intrigued by the writing as I paged through, but I’d never been a fan of Henry James (the central figure in The Master). So I wandered inside, and looked through the fiction section but found nothing. So I hailed one of the booksellers passing by. “I can’t find the books by this writer anywhere.”
The man looked at what I had in hand, said, “Well, he’s an Irish writer,” and bid me to follow him. We crossed into another area entirely, a much larger space, with a long wall of books crowned by grand letters: THE IRISH WRITERS.
There I found Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing. It began:
“Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movement within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.”
In alternating chapters, The Heather Blazing tells the story of the aging Judge Redmond, who lives with his wife, Carmel, in Dublin and returns each summer to his family home in the south by the sea; and of young Eamon Redmond the motherless child, who grew up there in Enniscorthy with his father and uncle, who were both Fianna Fáiland deeply involved in the struggles. When his father, a schoolteacher, has a stroke, young Eamon is taken by his uncle to live with some even-more-distant cousins in an even-more-rural setting; it’s a very long time before they are reunited, and his father struggles to speak and teach with his enduring handicap. In the midst of all this, a wonderful and convincing tale of reaching puberty, and struggling with the faith of an altar boy. And another, later, of meeting Carmel at a campaign rally in which young Eamon has been asked to give a speech.
Years later, Eamon and Carmel have two children, a daughter who goes ahead with having a baby rather than an illegal abortion knowing the father won’t return; and a son who seems to struggle under the weight of his father’s stature. Carmel minds the baby, Eamon builds a career in law that puts him on the bench, and in the office looking down on the Liffey.
The parallels between Tóibín’s novels, especially the early ones, are striking: Families marked by love and loss, absent parents, children bearing the weight of it all and growing into adults marked by it. The Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as were two of his later novels, The Masterin 2004 and Brooklynin 2009.
It would be some time before I read The Master, though I now regard it as perhaps Tóibín’s greatest work. I look forward to reviewing it in a future post.
So I ask, how did you find one of your favorite authors? I found Kevin Barry, subject of my recent post on Night Boat to Tangier, by way of a short story published in The New Yorkerin 2010 called “Fjord of Killary”. I first read Richard Ford after hearing him speak at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference in 2002. Why not click on “Comments”, call yourself whatever you like (within reason), and let us know one or more of your favorite writers and how you found them.
Finally,click on the link below to see Colm Toibin and Richard Ford reading from their then-recent books a few years ago at Columbia University, where both taught at the time.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .