Monthly Archives: October 2015

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland

Last week I posted the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s touching novel about a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. The book is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. My first post focused on certain aspects of Nora’s character together with some background on the story – if you haven’t already read it, please do take a look. In this second piece, I’m going to consider the setting and period – more specifically, life in a small Irish community in the late sixties. By doing so, I hope to be able to bring out some of the novel‘s humour alongside other elements.

Nora cover

In my previous piece, I commented on Tóibín’s achievement in creating a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. He’s equally strong when it comes to evoking a sense of place as his portrayal of a small-town Ireland rings completely true to me.

Enniscorthy is a very conservative community, a place where everybody knows everyone else, and they all know what is happening in the town. Nora’s husband, Maurice, was widely known and well respected, and when he dies, Nora has to deal with a stream of well-wishers keen to express their condolences. Naturally, these people have nothing but good intentions, but Nora, an intensely private person at heart, finds it all too difficult to cope with these conversations.

I found myself wondering just how much of this is down to Nora’s character, her internal make-up, and how much might be a function of the culture in Ireland at the time. My recollection of Ireland in the 1970s – a time not long after the period featured in Nora – is a place where virtually everybody internalised their own personal pain following the death of a partner. Nobody discussed how they were feeling; nobody talked about grief or how best to cope with it. Either way, this next quote resonates with me. It reminds me of how my mother felt when we returned to her family home in Ireland in the years following my father’s death. She would long for the time when she could go out without someone reminding her of her loss.

The town had become easier. In Court Street, or John Street, or on the Back Road, no one stopped her any more to express sympathy, no one stood looking into her eyes waiting for her to reply. If she met someone now and they stopped, it was to discuss other things. Sometimes, as they were ready to part, they would ask her how she was, or how the boys were, and this would be a way of quietly acknowledging what had happened. But even still she became nervous when she saw someone coming towards her ready to remind her of her loss. It was at times intrusive and hurtful. (pg. 183)

The novel is set in a culture where many women like Nora were expected to stay at home and manage the household. Once married, a woman’s main role would revolve around caring for her husband and her children. One of the threads running through the novel is Nora’s growing sense of independence in the years that follow her husband’s death. When he was alive, Maurice made all the decisions in the marriage, not just the big choices but several little ones too; for instance, when they went out for the evening, it was always Maurice who decided when they would leave.

With her husband gone, Nora gradually realises that she can think for herself: she can express her own opinions on the political situation rumbling away in the background at the time; she can begin to develop her own interests, pursuits that Maurice would never have shared. At first she is concerned that others will judge her, worried about what they might think if she dyes her hair or spends money on records. After all, Enniscorthy is a conservative town whose inhabitants are often quick to form opinions. In time, though, Nora becomes more willing to live a little. Here she considers her new stereo system, a purchase she makes to complement her growing love of music.

They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it. (pg. 280)

Much of Nora’s story reminds me of my mother’s own personal experience of losing her husband, the Ireland she knew, the people she met there. This is all rather melancholy, so I’d like to finish on a more positive note by commenting on some of the humour running through Nora. It would be very easy to form the impression that this novel is entirely morose. Naturally, the story is sad and very moving, but there are moments of lightness too, much of which stems from Tóibín’s observations on various members of the community.

There is a wonderful passage in which Nora is persuaded, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to have her hair dyed and styled. She is mortified when the colour turns out looking less natural than she had expected. What on earth will people think of her with Maurice only six months in the grave? Naturally, Nora is worried they will think she is trying to look like a much younger woman.

I could have picked one of several quotes from this section of the story – Conor’s reaction, in particular, is priceless – but instead I’ve chosen a short piece from a conversation Nora has with her Aunt Josie. Tóibín has a wonderful ear for dialogue, for the language and expressions the people of small-town Ireland use in their day-to-day lives. I think it shows in this quote. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora how she popped into Fitzgerald’s, a clothes shop in Wexford, just to kill a bit of time while waiting for her husband. This passage also seems to capture something of the spirit of Josie, a woman who reminds me so much of one of my own aunts.

‘…So I went in, and there was a very friendly assistant all ready to help. And I began to fit on costumes and then she got all the accessories. You should have seen the prices! Oh, she had me rigged out ten times over and went off to get more things that might suit me better. I was only filling in time. And I got a good hour out of it. She was full of this colour and that shade and this cut and that new fashion and what suited me and didn’t suit me. And then when I was back in my own clothes and ready to depart, didn’t she let out a roar at me, that I was after wasting her time. And she followed me to the door and said to me that I was not to think of coming into her shop again.’

Nora almost had a pain in her side laughing. Josie remained serious, with just a glint in her eye.

‘So I won’t be going into Fitzgerald’s to buy my spring outfit,’ she said sadly and shook her head. The cheek of that woman! A rip of a one.’ (pg. 39)

Several other bloggers have reviewed Nora Webster – posts that have caught my eye include those by Claire, FictionFan, Max and Simon.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (1) – Nora

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, has been widely reviewed in the press and the blogosphere. Consequently, there seems little point in my trying to write a traditional review of this fine novel – I would simply end up repeating the words of other reviews. (It’s probably going to be hard to avoid doing that anyway, but I’ll try not to.) Instead, I’m going to comment on a few passages from the novel, quotes that seem to reveal something about the characters or the particular time and sense of place. This is the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, a story that speaks to me on a personal level. Today’s post focuses on Nora’s character while the second piece (which I’m planning to post next week) will look at the setting.

Nora cover

The novel is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. Nora’s husband, Maurice, a well-respected local schoolteacher, has recently died a slow and painful death. This leaves Nora alone with her two young sons, Donal and Connor, both of whom are still in school. Her two older children, Fiona and Aine, are continuing their studies at college/boarding school and as such they are living away from home for most of the year. Nora is in her mid-forties when Maurice dies, and the book takes us through the next four years or so of Nora’s life as she tries to come to terms with the changes widowhood brings. In effect, she must try to find a new way to live.

As the novel opens, we find Nora deep in grief as she struggles to cope with the constant stream of friends and neighbours who call to express their sympathy. These visitors mean well, but they are somewhat intrusive both physically and emotionally, each one requiring a little piece of Nora at a time when she would much rather be alone. In the early months following Maurice’s death, Nora suppresses her feelings, internalising all her emotions as she tries to keep things together for the sake of the boys.

Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to manage for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they gradually became used to their father not being there. She realized now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She in turn, had learned to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings. (pg. 6, Penguin Books)

Quite early on in the novel it becomes apparent that Nora’s sons, Donal and Conor, are deeply unsettled. In the period leading up to her husband’s death, Nora devoted herself to Maurice completely, visiting him in hospital every day and staying by his side as much as possible. The boys went to live with their Aunt Josie for a couple of months, and during this time they heard nothing from Nora, neither a phone call nor a visit. Her sole focus was Maurice. As a consequence, the boys felt abandoned, a realisation that only becomes clear to Nora after Maurice’s death. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora what happened.

‘…So they stayed here. And it was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or pulled in on the road, the two of them would stop what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time and never once coming to see them.’ (pg. 54)

I wouldn’t want to give the impression Nora doesn’t care for her children – in fact, she’s fiercely protective of them when they’re treated unjustly. It’s just that she finds it hard to show her emotions, and there are times when she could demonstrate a little more warmth in her interactions with the children.

As the narrative progresses, it gradually becomes apparent that Nora is somewhat distanced from other members of her immediate family, too. She is not close to her married sister, Catherine, and her younger sister, Una, is a little afraid of upsetting her. There is an inner steeliness to Nora’s character, and she can be rather blunt at times. As a consequence of all of this, Nora is often left out of various conversations as close friends and family members think they know what’s best for her and the boys. In this scene, Nora discovers she is the last person to hear of Una’s forthcoming wedding.

Nora felt the weight of them all talking about her, all of them thinking that she might in some way object to her sister getting married or say something stinging to Una about it. She wished now that she felt like saying something helpful, but she could not think what it might be. But she also wished that the three of them might go, the two girls back upstairs or to the other room, and Una to her own house. The longer they stayed expecting something from her, the closer she came to feeling a sort of rage that she knew stemmed from her encounter with Miss Kavanagh and from not sleeping well […]. But it also came from Una herself, and from Fiona and Aine. (pg. 155)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Nora Webster is not a plot-driven novel. This is a quiet, largely introspective story that relies on the strength of its characters. Tóibín has created a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. So much of her situation, along with certain aspects of her personality, reminds me of my own mother’s life. There are several parallels: both women were brought up in small-town communities in Ireland; both were widowed in their mid-forties; both suppressed their emotions, internalising much of what they were feeling and thinking. (I must have been about the same age as Donal when my own father died suddenly.)

Tóibín perfectly captures Nora’s grief, this sense of feeling cast adrift from day-to-day life, of floating in a world where everything seems meaningless.

So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing. (pg. 204)

The novel contains a number of perceptive passages on the difficulty of recovering from the death of a partner. At times, it feels as though there is nothing to move on to, only what has happened in the past.

Slowly but surely, Nora does begin to discover a new way to live. She finds solace in music, joins the town’s Gramophone Society and takes singing lessons in her spare time. Her deep love of classical music is something Maurice would never have cared for.

In time, she also finds a way of reconnecting with her children, particularly Donal who seems to be the one most affected by Maurice’s death. In this scene, she realises just how much she needs to reach out to reassure him, to demonstrate she’s there for him.

Her speaking about herself, her own needs, her own worry, made him appear even more alert. It occurred to her that he had thought more closely about her over the previous few years than she had about him. She wondered if that could be true. She knew that how she felt affected him, and now, for the first time, how he felt seemed more urgent, more worthy of attention than any of her feelings. All she could do was to let him know and make him believe that she would do everything she promised to do. (pg. 309)

Needless to say, I loved this novel for its textured portrayal of Nora, for its beautiful pared-back prose, for so many things. I’ll be back next week with a shorter piece on life in small-town Ireland in the late 1960s and the humour in the community.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen (tr. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah)

White is the colour of death, like the frost that ‘spreads weed-like through the window frames along the timber joints across the wall.’

Finnish writer Aki Ollikainen’s debut, White Hunger, is the first novella in the Peirene Press Chance Encounter series (their theme for 2015). This bleak yet poetic story is rather remarkable, and it’s my favourite Peirene release in quite some time.

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The setting is the Finnish countryside in the winter of 1867. Successive years of crop failures, widespread famine and the harsh winter weather have taken their toll on the inhabitants of the country. Ollikainen’s story focuses on a farmer’s wife, Marja, and her family. As we join them, Marja’s husband, Juhani, is dying. There is nothing more that Marja can do for him, so she wraps her two children, Mataleena and Juho, in their clothes as they set out on foot in search of food. They must move if they are to have any chance of survival – to remain in Korpela would bring death upon the whole family.

She thinks angrily of Juhani refusing to eat and giving everything he could lay his hands on to her and the children. It was stupid: the man should have looked after himself so that he could take responsibility for his family. She and the children would have stayed alive on less, but now, without Juhani, they would not survive the winter in Korpela.

It was not generosity that motivated Juhani’s decision, but cowardice. (pg. 33)

Marja’s aim is to make it to St Petersburg where there is rumoured to be food. As the family travel south, they encounter a variety of people, most of them strangers. Some take pity on them offering shelter for the night and bowls of thin gruel for the children; others are more territorial shunning Marja’s family while they prioritise their own. They are often labelled as beggars (or worse). The most they can hope for is a piece of bread made from the bark of a tree, and maybe if they’re very lucky, a morsel of dried pike. All the while, the hunger persists.

Mataleena walks behind her mother, treading in the footprints, holding her coat more tightly to protect herself from the blizzard. She does not hear the rumbling of her stomach, but she feels it.

Hunger is the kitten Willow-Lauri put in a sack, which scratches away with its small claws, causing searing pain; then more scratching, then more, until the kitten is exhausted and falls to the bottom of the sack, weighing heavily there, before gathering its strength and starting a fresh struggle. You want to lift the animal out, but it scratches so hard you dare not reach inside. You have no option but to carry the bundle to the lake and throw it into the hole in the ice. (pgs. 46-47)

Thousands of others are also on the move, all of them just as desperate for food and shelter. There are several distressing scenes along the way. Marja’s nights are dominated by nightmares, terrifying dreams of all the horrors she has experienced or may have to face in the coming days. By day, she hallucinates as visions of the elusive St Petersburg taunt her mind.

The wind decides now on a direction and pushes Marja over the bridge. Swirls of snow lap around her feet; the current no longer flows under the bridge but along it, towards the snow plain on the other side, where the road vanishes.

Far away she sees the trees edging the open space; they change into the silhouettes of spires and palaces in the Tsar’s city. They flee, fluttering, into nothingness, and towards this nothingness Marja crawls, Juho in her arms. The Tsar himself descends to the crown of the biggest spruce, but dressed up as death, as a black raven. (pg. 103)

Alongside the story of Marja’s family, White Hunger touches briefly on the lives of two brothers, Teo (a doctor) and Lars (a state official). While they are aware of the desperation and poverty facing the country, the brothers are relatively well insulated from it, and their positions provide a counterpoint to the devastation around them. We are also privy to the perspective of the Senator, passages which highlight the detachment of the governing authorities despite the desperate shortages of food. (These brief chapters are interspersed between those focusing on Marja, Mataleena and Juho.)

White Hunger is a short book, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot. Save to say it’s a devastating portrayal of humanity at the very brink of survival. It might sound utterly unbearable, but the story ends with a few glimmers of hope, signs of spring and the possibility of renewal. A chance encounter proves vital in the face of adversity. Add to that the quality of Ollikainen’s writing. His prose is spare and controlled – it has a poetic feel, which serves to highlight moments of beauty amidst the bleakness.

The storm has subsided. The city has won one battle; the spire on the church cupola has succeeded in tearing holes in the blanket of clouds, through which the moon shimmers. (pg. 22)

White Hunger is a hugely impressive book, one with the feel of a classic in miniature. A timely story conveyed with real skill and gravitas. This novella has been widely reviewed elsewhere – links to a range of other reviews can be found on this page from the Peirene Press website. Grant (of 1streading) has just published this excellent review. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

First published in 1952 under the title ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol was Patricia Highsmith’s second book. It’s the source novel for Todd Haynes’ forthcoming film, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, the nineteen-year-old woman at the centre of Highsmith’s story. I’m desperate to see the film, so much so that I broke my current book-buying ban to get the book well in advance of early screenings at the LFF.

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Therese, a nineteen-year-old aspiring stage-set designer, lives on her own in a rented room in New York. Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, loves her and wants her to accompany him on his travels to Europe in the spring, but she is somewhat reluctant to commit. If truth be told, she doesn’t love him.

To make ends meet while she tries to get a foothold in the design business, Therese takes a temporary job as a sales assistant in a department store. It’s the run-up to Christmas, and she is rushed off her feet selling dolls to choosy parents and eager children. At times, Therese feels as if she has no real future to look forward to; stuck in a dead-end job, her desire to work in the theatre seems all but a distant dream. She is tired and lonely; her life seems uncertain, like ‘a series of zig-zags’.

One day, a tall, sophisticated woman in her early thirties comes into the store. The woman is Carol, and Therese is instantly attracted to her.

She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away. She heard the customer in front of her repeat a question, and Therese stood there, mute. The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here, and though there were a number of salesgirls between them, Therese felt sure the woman would come to her. Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment in had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer. (pgs. 35-36)

Carol buys a doll’s valise from Therese and arranges to have it delivered to her home. Once Carol has gone, Therese cannot stop thinking about her, so she decides to send her a Christmas card. The attraction is mutual. Carol invites Therese to lunch, and then to her home in the country where the electricity between the two women is palpable. When she returns to her own room, Therese’s thoughts are completely occupied by Carol.

But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant. She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves. (pg. 73)

At first, Therese is rather nervous around Carol, afraid of making a fool of herself in front of someone so seemingly self-assured. After a while she begins to open up a little, and we learn more of her backstory: how her kind and sympathetic father died when she was six; how her mother left her at a boarding school and rarely visited. The more she sees of Carol, the more Therese realises she is in love with this woman – the contrast with her feelings for Richard couldn’t be clearer.

And she thought suddenly of the times she had gone to bed with him, of her distance then compared to the closeness that was supposed to be, that everyone talked about. It hadn’t mattered to Richard then, she supposed, because of the physical fact they were in bed together. And it crossed her mind now, seeing Richard’s complete absorption in his reading, […] it occurred to her Richard’s attitude was that his place in her life was unassailable, her tie with him permanent and beyond question, because he was the first man she had ever slept with. Therese threw the match cover at the shelf, and a bottle of something fell over. (pgs. 110-111)

While she plainly enjoys Therese’s company, there are times when Carol seems somewhat distracted. She is going through a divorce from her husband, Harge, and the question of custody of their daughter, Rindy, is yet to be resolved. (Rindy is to live with Harge for the next three months, but the plan for long-term care remains open.) To take her mind off the divorce proceedings, Carol asks Therese to accompany her on a road trip across the US. Much to Richard’s dismay, Therese accepts. As far as Richard is concerned, Carol is simply playing with Therese – once she tires of the young girl she will kick her out. But Richard’s reaction only serves to show just how little he understands about Therese and emotions in general.

Kick me out, she thought. What was in or out? How did one kick out an emotion? She was angry, but she did not want to argue. She said nothing. (pg. 162)

Carol and Therese get to know each other better as they drive westward across the States visiting places such as Chicago, Waterloo and Colorado Springs. The scene in which they finally sleep together is very touching and beautifully rendered – for Therese it couldn’t feel more perfect. But while Carol is deeply attracted to Therese, she remains somewhat distant and prone to moments of melancholy.

Carol was happy only at moments here and there, moments that Therese caught and kept. One had been in the evening they put away the Christmas decorations, and Carol had refolded the string of angels and put them between the pages of a book. ‘I’m going to keep these,’ she had said. ‘With twenty-two angels to defend me, I can’t lose.’ Therese looked at Carol now, and though Carol was watching her, it was through that veil of preoccupation that Therese so often saw, that kept them a world apart. (pgs. 168-169)

In the midst of the road trip, it becomes clear that Harge has hired a private detective to follow Carol and Therese. Harge is aware of his wife’s fondness for women and intends to gather incriminating evidence to use against her in the forthcoming custody battle for their daughter, Rindy. That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot of this excellent novel, save to say this development prompts Carol to take action.

I really loved this book. It is beautiful, insightful and involving, one for my end-of-year highlights for sure. The central characters are so well drawn, and the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. Highsmith’s prose is rather beautiful, too. Take this early scene, for example, where Therese looks at Carol:

The lamp on the table made her eyes silvery, full of liquid light. Even the pearl at her earlobe looked alive, like a drop of water that a touch might destroy. (pg. 46)

Or this passage from their road trip:

But there were other days when they drove out into the mountains alone, taking any road they saw. Once they came upon a little town they liked and spent the night there, without pyjamas or toothbrushes, without a past or future, and the night became another of those islands in time, suspended somewhere in the heart or in the memory, intact and absolute. (pg. 227)   

Even though Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context.

Highsmith wrote the outline of this novel in 1948, a time when societal and cultural attitudes towards homosexuality were quite different to those existing today. Carol shines a light on the emotional impact of the pressure to conform to society’s expectations, raising questions about situations that were considered inappropriate or unacceptable at the time. The novel also broke the mould in that it was one of the first serious works of fiction featuring lesbians which did not end in suicide, despair or redemption in the form of a change of heart. Instead, the ending of Highsmith’s novel is rather more hopeful.

In her excellent afterword, the author explains how the story was inspired by her own experience of working on the doll counter of a Manhattan store during the Christmas rush. Therese, a young woman who decides to follow her desires and aspirations in life, is loosely based on Highsmith herself. You can read about it in this article from The Guardian, which also tells how the book was first published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan. (Please note, this piece does reveal a little more of the plot.)

Carol has also been reviewed by Bettina (of Books, Bikes, Food).

Carol is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy.