Should You Read The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín?

The cover of The Heather Blazing, showing an abstract landscape of green, red, and yellow, with blues and whites suggestive of the sea and sky beyond

“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.”

– Opening of The Heather Blazing

Every year at the end of the term, an Irish judge goes to his vacation house on the coast. Over the course of three such visits, the events of his life unfold, both in the present and in long flashbacks that take the reader from his childhood to the earlier part of his adult life. From growing up with a single father during World War Two to difficulties connecting with his own children years later, the reader gets an in-depth view of his life and the events that shaped his character.

The Heather Blazing is literary fiction, very slow in the beginning and depending on your interest in the setting and the characters and your taste for the writing style in order to keep you going. Personally, I didn’t really get into the book until the second of its three parts, but once I did it kept me going to the end.

I don’t want to spoil any of it, but I will say it helps to have a certain amount of familiarity with Irish history before you read, especially the events of the early twentieth century, the Irish Civil War, and the position of the country during World War Two. A basic understanding of the Irish judicial system and political parties would also make a good contribution. If you don’t live in Ireland and didn’t take an Irish Literature class that covered such things (as I did back in college), you might want to do a bit of research upfront to save yourself from Googling as you go.

That being said, if you do have an interest in Irish history or if you love/love to picture the Irish coast, I think you’ll find this book appealing in terms of those elements. You’re also likely to enjoy it if you like reflecting on the development of characters such as this one over the course of their lives. It does have some explicit sexual content, so skip it if that’s not your thing. Apart from that, it’s a very quiet read. No violence, no particularly exciting plot developments, just scenes from a life. Feel free to pick it up, read a chapter or two, and decide if it appeals to you.

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