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.

69 thoughts on “Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (1) – Nora

  1. roughghosts

    I (shamefully) have only read one Toibin novel, The Testament of Mary, which disappointed me though I am forever haunted by his wonderful treatment of the Lazarus story. He is frequently interviewed here in Canada and he is a writer I love to listen to. I must read another. This novel received mixed reviews among many I know but your post is very compassionate and moving.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Joe – that’s very kind of you to say. Oddly enough, The Testament of Mary didn’t appeal to me at the time of its publication, so it passed me by. I might read it at some stage, but his Enniscorthy-based novels are the ones that interest me the most, probably as a result of the connection with my mother’s side of the family. Tóibín comes across very well in interviews, doesn’t he? You’ve probably heard it, but if not, there’s a link here to an audio interview he did for The Guardian a few months ago. I would love to hear him speak at an event.

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/jun/05/colm-toibin-women-fiction-podcast

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        I saw him speak at an event at King’s College London last year: he’s delightfully witty and acutely intelligent – as you’d expect from his novels.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Col! I’m so glad you loved this book as well. At first I wondered if it might be a novel that appeals more to women than men but in actual fact it seems to resonate with quite a wide range of readers. It’s good to hear that you rate it so highly.

      Reply
  2. naomifrisby

    Thoughtful piece, Jacqui. I’m looking forward to reading the second part. I love Toibin’s writing, Brooklyn’s one of my favourite novels. I bought Nora Webster when it was published and your piece has reminded me I have it. It sounds like one you need to be in a good frame of mind to read though.

    Reply
    1. Col

      Brooklyn is a favourite of mine too. There are posters now advertising the film everywhere on the Tube – think it comes out next month. I hope it does the wonderful writing justice!

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        I’m looking forward to seeing Brooklyn as well, but I still need to read the book! Looks like I’m going to have to get a move on before the film opens at the beginning of November. :)

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. It’s a very poignant story, but there are touches of lightness that help to balance the some of the loss in Nora’s life. My second piece is going to highlight a little of the humour in the novel, much of which comes from the characters and culture of life in an Irish community. I love Tóibín’s prose too – you know you’re in safe hands when you open one his novels.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, what a coincidence! Thanks, Claire. Yes, absolutely wonderful characterisation – you really get a strong sense of Nora’s interior life. I don’t know how he does it, but Tóibín has a real gift for writing women.

      Reply
  3. susanosborne55

    A very thoughtful review, Jacqui. One of my favourie writers. I wondered if you’d seen the BBC Imagine programme about Norah Webster and Toibin’s relationship with his mother. Sadly, it’s no longer on iPlayer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. No, I didn’t see that programme…what a shame, it sounds just my type of thing. Oh, well…I’ll have to hope it’s repeated at some stage.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I really like the writing style reflected in the quotes that you posted.

    It seems matter of fact yet they seem to dig deeply into the characters in question.

    I may have mentioned this before, but I am appreciating books that are not plot driven more and more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I love the way Tóibín writes. His prose is uncluttered, but he seems to be able to get to the heart of his character’s feelings. You get a vivid sense of Nora’s interior life, her inner thoughts and emotions even when she finds it hard to connect with those around her. I know you tend to read the classics, but if you ever wanted to try something more contemporary, Colm Tóibín might be worth considering.

      Reply
  5. Donald Whiteway

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Mr. Toibin and seek him out often (looking forward to the film adaptation of Brooklyn). Really enjoyed your piece as you identify with certain aspects. Will be looking forward to your next entry. Thank you for writing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! As I guess you can tell, I connected with this book on a personal level as so much of Nora’s character and situation rang true to me. He can write women very well, that’s for sure. I’m looking forward to seeing Brooklyn, too – the trailer looks excellent so it should be good. Thanks for taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it.

      Reply
  6. jools500

    A lovely review, as always, Jacqui. I agree that he can write about women very well and I think that’s what makes his novels so compelling. I’m looking forward to reading this one.

    Reply
  7. FictionFan

    I too love this novel and for similar reasons – Nora reminds me very much of my own mother and her generation of women. The west of Scotland where I’m from is, of course, very interconnected to Ireland both by relationships and culture, so his depiction of small town life rings very true to me too. Thanks for the reminder of some lovely passages.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s interesting to hear the same things struck a chord with you as well. Unsurprisingly, given his background, I think Tóibín nails these women and their lives in a small, closely connected community. I loved his portrayal the descriptions of the workplace at Gibney’s, all the interactions and office politics at play. The quiz night where Nora gets to let her hair down is another wonderful scene. Did you review this novel by any chance? I’ll head over to yours and take a look.

      Reply
  8. Scott W

    I feel rather remiss in having not read Tóibín despite so many resoundingly positive accolades. I do have to say that this one appeals to me more than the others that friends and reviewers have described – not least for your sensitive and personal response to it. And I’m rather surprised, given the subject and the passages you’ve selected, that your next post will in part focus on “humour” – quite another kind of positive recommendation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s definitely worth trying, Scott. I haven’t read his much-loved Brooklyn (well, not yet anyway), but this one really resonated with me on a personal level. As a writer, he ‘gets’ these women and his evocation of life in a small-town Irish community is spot on. More of that in part two… :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. I think you’ll enjoy Nora very much. I hope it’s in the 746! Brooklyn is one of my gaps so I’ll have to address that asap (especially as the film goes on release at the beginning of November).

      Reply
  9. Melissa Beck

    I got about 3/4 of the way through this book and then abandoned it. I just could not sympathize with her character and her lack of concern for her kids really bothered me. You did a great review of it and I’m glad you liked it though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, interesting to hear another perspective on Nora. Did you review it, Melissa? (I’ll take a look at yours a little later.) I do think Nora loves her children very much even though she doesn’t demonstrate a lot of warmth and affection in her interactions with them. I recognise much of the same internalisation/repression of emotions amongst many of the women on my mother’s side of the family. It’s partly a function of the Irish culture, I think…or at least it was at the time of the novel’s setting.

      I’m sorry you gave up on it, but there’s little point in continuing if you’re not connecting with a book. Life’s too short!

      Reply
  10. poppypeacockpens

    What a lovely post – and fab to focus so sensitively on just the key character… I’ve this & Brooklyn waiting patiently on my TBR for a nice winterly afternoon when I can read them ‘hopefully’ undeserved… look forward to part II x

    Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Thanks, Poppy. I knew I’d have to find a slightly different angle when writing about this book as so many other reviewers and bloggers have covered it. While Nora is a different character from my own mother, there are several parallels between their situations and reactions to the loss of their partner. Hence my decision to go down a more personal route with these pieces. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Nora. It’s a novel you can sink into, and Tóibín’s writing is just superb.

        Oh, and thanks for sharing this on FB – much appreciated. (I don’t have a facebook account, never joined!)

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Marina. I hope you enjoy Nora as much as I did – there’s a good chance you’ll like it especially if you’ve taken to his other novels. I think he’s one of my favourite contemporary writers.

      Reply
  11. heavenali

    I will be reading this in December with one of my book groups. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m glad it’s not plot driven as I prefer character driven narratives. I’ve only read two Toibin novels before.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I can’t wait to hear what you think of it! The real strengths of this novel are the characterisation and strong sense of place. You really get a vivid sense of Nora’s interior life: her inner thoughts and emotions, her need to find a new way to live. Tóibín’s writing is wonderful, too – just perfectly balanced prose. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

      Reply
  12. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve heard good things about this book, and I loved reading about how it touched you personally – books can often resonate so deeply with us that I think they can transcend what the author intended.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Karen. I took a bit of a leap of faith in making this post a little different from my usual reviews, but this novel spoke to me on such a personal level that I just knew I had to run with it. As you say, sometimes literature touches us on a different level by helping us to understand our own life experience in some way. I think that’s the case for Nora and me.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not yet, Guy, but I’ll probably read it fairly soon as the film’s about to come out over here. (I doubt whether I’ll review it, though – I’m only posting on about half of the books I read these days as time is a bit short.) I didn’t think it would be your kind of novel to be honest. Still, life would be rather dull if we all liked the same books. :)

      Reply
  13. Emma

    Lovely and thoughtful review, Jacqui. I’m looking forward to reading the second post.
    Nora doesn’t bother to visit her children during her husband’s illness and I’d have a hard time sympathising with her after that. I like that you manage to remain neutral, not to judge her. I’m not sure I could.

    I remember reading Max’s review of this one. He wasn’t as positive as you but now I’m intrigued.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I really did feel for the two boys when it became clear that Nora never got in touch with them for two or three months while they were staying with Josie. It must have been so hard for them. Nevertheless, I don’t think Nora did it deliberately or consciously. As far as she was concerned, the boys were safe with their aunt, so she just focused her attention on Maurice to make the most of the time they had left together and to ease his suffering as much as possible. She just didn’t realise that the boys might need some of her love, too. The quote probably feels a little out of context in my review, but when you read the novel, you soon realise that Nora does love her children very much. She’s just not terribly self-aware – I think that’s a running theme throughout the novel.

      I listened to an audio interview with Tóibín where he was discussing the novel and he specifically mentioned that readers may find it difficult to sympathise with some of his characters in certain situations. I think he’s interested in our flaws and failings, those situations where we don’t always do the ‘right’ thing even though we might have the best of intentions at heart.

      Yes, I think Max preferred Brooklyn to Nora – I’m pretty sure he suggested I start with Brooklyn, but it wasn’t in my TBR. Never mind, I’ll have to get hold of it before seeing the film!

      Reply
  14. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Nora Webster is a brilliant novel and listening Colm Toibin speak about his characters and writing them is a pure pleasure (I’ve only seen them online, but he is so involved in their world when they speak through them, almost as if he is a passive listener and scribe).

    Nora (the chracter) frustrated me so much and Toibin accentuated the frustration through his use of the third person limited point of view, so unless it was through dialogue, we rarely ever heard anyone else’s perspective on things. This frustration provoked a fascinating discussion on my review and I found it so interesting to hear how many people could relate to the character through their own mothers.

    I Did find it hard to imagine how the mother instinct left her during her husband’s illness, and I wondered why Toibin left that hanging, we were not given much of an insight into her loyalties or whether her love for her husband outweighed that of her sons, or whether she was trying to protect the boys. Reading your last comment above, I am more inclined to think this was author manipulation, it just didn’t make sense given how much we already know about her sensitive if somewhat aloof character.

    A small masterpiece.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall your review along with some of the discussion about Nora in the comments. Yes, a fascinating debate enriched by the number of people who offered reflections based on their own mothers and the culture in Ireland at the time. (I’ll be linking to other reviews in my next post, and yours is in my list of links.)

      Your last point is really interesting. I don’t know if you caught Tóibín on The Guardian Books podcast a few months ago? If not, it’s well worth a listen:

      http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/jun/05/colm-toibin-women-fiction-podcast

      In relation to fiction in general, he mentions the need to be wary of entering into a pact with the reader in which the author gives them virtually nothing but pure satisfaction. In other words, little more than a comfortable read where the main character will elicit our sympathy in almost every situation in which they find themselves. In creating Nora, I think he is consciously trying to test our sympathies, to provoke us as readers, albeit in a fairly gentle way, by giving her character some unexpected ‘edges’ or facets. He also mentions the idea of creating a female character whose maternal instincts are not fully formed. Rather, they are repressed in some way – another element he brings out in Nora. Also, I hadn’t realised before listening to this podcast that Tóibín draws on some of his own personal experience for the abandonment element of the story. When he was eight years old, Tóibín and his younger brother were sent to stay with an aunt while their father went away for major brain surgery. Their mother accompanied the father during his stay in hospital, so the two boys were left behind in a similar situation to Nora’s lads. Tóibín and his brother didn’t know the aunt very well (or anyone else in the neighbourhood for that matter), and they had no idea when their parents would return or what the future might hold for them. It’s quite an affecting story, and I can see how it found its way into the novel.

      That said, I do find Nora very believable (flaws and all), especially given the women I knew from the Ireland of my youth. (I was born in England, and we lived most of our lives over here, but my mother and I would go over to Co. Cork for the summer holidays.) My second piece will look at the culture in small-town Ireland in a little more detail, so I’ll come back to it briefly next week.

      Reply
  15. Max Cairnduff

    I thought the characterisation in this superb, particularly the subtlety of it. It becomes apparent as you bring out that in part Nora has somewhat let her children down, so immersed in her own grief she forgets to be there for them, but at the same time it’s never crude or suggesting she’s uncaring. They were all adrift.

    I did love it less, but not for the aspects you discuss here. I thought however that Toibin was a bit weak on chronology. I often found it hard to tell exactly when things were happening, or how much time had passed, and generally I didn’t find it quite as interesting as Brooklyn.

    Looking forward to your second piece.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, absolutely. Nora’s character was so fully painted, so nuanced – I found her totally believable. Like you, I never formed the impression that she didn’t love or care for the boys. It’s just that she was so wrapped up with coming to terms with Maurice’s imminent death, she simply forgot that they might need her too. I thought Nora was quite shocked when Josie told her about the boys, how much they missed her out there in the back and beyond.

      I remember you saying the timeline was somewhat problematic or not quite on the money in this novel. It was a little difficult to work out exactly how much time had elapsed, but I just went with the flow in the end. I’m very keen to get to Brooklyn. In fact, I might borrow it from the library for a quick read before the film opens. It sounds terrific, an interesting companion piece to Nora.

      P.S. My second piece will include links to a few other reviews of Nora and yours is on the list.

      Reply
  16. Violet

    I heard Toibin on the radio here last year, talking about Nora Webster. Here’s the link, in case you’re interested – I don’t know if it’s geoblocked, though. ABC

    I borrowed the book from the library because I felt quite moved by the way Toibin talked about his mum and that whole era in his life. I thought I’d love the book, for sure, but it touched a few raw nerves to do with my own mother and I didn’t finish it. I’m glad you were able to relate to it and find things to savour. It’s interesting how reading fiction affects us, isn’t it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great, Thanks for the link – I’ll give it a try.

      He’s a very engaging speaker, isn’t he? I would love to go along and listen to him at an event. As for the novel, I thought it would be a difficult book for me as well – I had to find the right time to read it. Nora’s situation reminded me so much of my own mother’s struggle to build a new life for herself all those years ago, and I think it helped me understand just how tough it must have been for her at the time. That’s one of the things I love about literature, how it can offer different perspectives that encourage us to reflect on some of our own experiences.

      I’m really sorry it touched a few raw nerves for you, though. It’s that kind of novel, I think. I’m sure you did the right thing in putting it aside at the time…

      Reply
  17. Lisa Hill

    What a pleasure it is to read your thoughts, Jacqui:) I read this myself a little while ago and it is so nice to be reminded about it in this way. I loved the way Nora grew from this melancholy experience, and became more able to follow long-suppressed interests.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Lisa. I loved the subtle way Tóibín captures Nora’s gradual reawakening as she finds a new way to live. Delighted to hear you enjoyed this novel, too – it seems to have struck a chord with so many readers.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Hill

        It might be because it gives hope… it is a melancholy and deeply felt novel, but I think it might make people feel that there is a way forward out of such grief.

        Reply
  18. Pingback: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland | JacquiWine's Journal

  19. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  20. Séamus Duggan

    I must get around to this one, Jacqui, although I’m not getting through many books at the moment. It sounds like a companion piece to his wonderful Blackwater Lightship – have you read it?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I have read Blackwater Lightship. It was my first by Tóibín, and I loved it from the very start. It’s interesting you should mention the connection with Nora Webster. Fiction Fan argues that Brooklyn, Nora Webster and The Blackwater Lightship could be seen as a loose trilogy showing the changes in society over the years, especially the effects on the women in the community. There’s something to be said for that theory. I’m going to try to read Brooklyn fairly soon as the film’s about to hit the screens over here. Have you read that one? (I can’t think why I haven’t read it already, but there never seems to be enough time to get to everything.)

      Reply
  21. Pingback: My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading | JacquiWine's Journal

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