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.
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.