The Heather Blazing / The Howling Miller
It would be nice to say that my writing can’t keep up with all the reading I’m doing – but it would be a lie. Writing is just less and less appealing, so expect more 2in1s in the future – if you, my anonymous reader who wandered here looking for “allison janney gap teeth”, even give a crap. By the way I’ve never written anything on that topic (nor will I ever) so there you go. Disappointment.
Now then – back to the books.
Mr. Toibin is, maybe not a master at describing all range of human emotion, but certainly a master of grief. His portraits are so subtly and gradually built that they catch you unaware – there are no theatrical outbursts, no screams, no wails, just slow-burning sadness and spikes of pain. Eamon witnessing an odd scene in the village and anxiously waiting to share it with his wife, only to be struck by the realization that she’s dead – a moment such as this is so relatable and so heartbreaking.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Heather Blazing has at its center Eamon Redmond, a Judge of the Four Courts who, while nearing retirement, spends his last few summer holidays in Cush (nearby where he grew up) reflecting on his childhood and youth and the many losses he’s had to endure: his mother when he was only a baby, his grandparents, an uncle, his father – all culminating with the death of his wife. We skip through various family vignettes alternating between past and present: his first house, a family dinner followed shortly by his grandfather’s and uncle’s demise, his father’s illness (the stroke that left him with a limp and slurred speech), his first girlfriend, the courtship with his wife, his somewhat distant relationship with his grownup children and, finally, his wife’s illness (mirroring that of his father). Mr. Toibin is very economical with the details, he simply lets the scenes unravel objectively, distantly – allowing you to latch onto whatever detail resonates and this kind of minimal author manipulation is the only thing that will get me involved and invested in a character. In the end, it’s all about the small personal tragedies, the longing, the nostalgia and the regrets of 60 years – or, at least, this is what I’m inclined to see.
Ulvova mylläri (The Howling Miller) reminded me vaguely of the Thoreau back-to-nature ethos or even of a Zorba-like attitude towards work – a purposeful single-mindedness. It’s very possible that both these comparisons are far-fetched, I don’t have much to support them with, they were mostly passing thoughts I had while I was reading the book. Gunnar Huttunen is, still, a very peculiar and memorable hero. He’s a miller (and a very good and dedicated one) who has the odd quirk of howling at the moon (literally) when he feels overwhelmed by any emotion. Proving the age-old cliché that we fear what we don’t understand, his fellow villagers proceed thus to send him to an insane asylum and, when he escapes, they hunt him down, forcing him to live in the woods. There’s a dark humor to this character and absurd moments reminiscent of Catch 22 (or MASH, as one review noted) – but the potentially supernatural tint of the ending seems unfit and spoiled the book for me. But The Guardian and NYTimes have described it better, so you should check out their reviews.