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.

42 thoughts on “Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland

  1. Tredynas Days

    You bring out well the tone of the novel. You could quote any sentence at random and find a gem. My mother too was very like Nora – heartbroken when widowed but also liberated to be herself. This I think would be harder to film than Brooklyn. More internal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. Yes, it’s a novel packed with little insights about life and loss. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it seems to have struck a chord with several readers.

      You’re right – I think it would be hard to film this story as so much of it relies on gaining access to Nora’s thoughts. Hard to achieve without losing some of the subtlety conveyed through the novel.

      Reply
  2. kimbofo

    I admit I wasn’t much of a fan of this novel, despite being a fan of Toibin’s work, and then I saw the Imagine documentary about it on BBC4 last year and it made much more sense to me now that I knew what Toibin was trying to achieve: essentially it’s a portrait of his mother and he is one of the little boys in it. He could never understand why he was so cruelly sent away to live with his aunt during his father’s illness, and this is his way of trying to comprehend his mother’s behaviour.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s really interesting, Kim. Susan mentioned the Imagine documentary in her comments on my previous post – I missed it at the time, and sadly it’s no longer available on the iPlayer. Tóibín touches on some of the background during a session recorded for The Guardian Books podcast, and I got the sense that he drew on his own personal experience for the novel. As you say, it does put the novel into perspective. Hers’s a link to the Guardian podcast as it might be of interest to you or others:

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

      Reply
      1. kimbofo

        Ah, I wondered if someone might have already told you about the doc. I missed part one of your review while I was off travelling (I’ve been in outback Australia and had limited internet access while there.)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, no worries, Kim – I’m very glad you mentioned it. Sounds as though you had a wonderful time in Australia. I saw a pic of your book haul on Twitter!

          Reply
  3. susanosborne55

    I imagine this was not always an easy read for you but you’ve written about it beautifully, Jacqui. I love that last quote. You can just hear the outraged tones as Josie tells her story – the ‘glint’ is a master stroke.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, I suspected this might be a difficult read for me, but I think it helped me understand just how tough it must have been for my mother when she lost my father. Like Nora, she was lost, and it took her a long time to come to terms with everything, but she found a way through eventually.

      That final quote is terrific, isn’t it? I just knew I had to include it!

      Reply
  4. bookgirl1980

    The influence and the community and atmosphere that surrounds a person is something that we often overlook. I think that this is especially true of folks living in relatively uninhibited atmospheres. It is easy to lose site of how something as simple as forming one’s own opinions can be a milestone on life.

    Superb commentary as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, I think Tóibín really captures this aspect of Nora’s reawakening – the way she gradually realises that it’s okay for her express her own opinions and pursue new interests. I found it all rather touching.

      Reply
      1. bookgirl1980

        BTW – This is Brian Joseph. Book girl is someone who I helped with an problem on her account about 4 years ago. Occasionally when I try to leave a comment her name pops up. Very bizarre! I need to get this straightened out! Sorry for the confusion!

        Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent piece, Jacqui. I think the internalising was not necessarily restricted to Ireland – that generation didn’t show emotion like we do nowadays. I think the balance has perhaps gone too much in the other direction with all these public outpourings of grief. But it’s wrong to keep it all in…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good point! And I agree with your thoughts on the movement in the other direction. I still find it hard to understand the mass outpouring of grief at the death of certain public figures. I guess it all started with Princess Diana…

      Reply
  6. FictionFan

    You’ve reminded me of so many of the things that made me love this novel so much – his feel for the time and place is wonderful and of course he has the skill to express it all so well. Lovely post – thank you! And thanks for the link. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! Yes, it’s a wonderful evocation of life in a close-knit Irish community. I think he captures the mannerisms and dialogue of these characters so well.

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    Hi Jacqui, our computers seem to have developed a mutual animosity because I commented yesterday and it didn’t appear, as happened to you on Gert a while ago. I was going to say I agree with everything you say about Toibin in general, though I haven’t read this one. The Irish tones are very familiar to me from my grandmother who sued to say things like “smashed to smithereens” and tell us we’d have “the black blood” if we drank too much tea. Interesting too the relationship between Irish men and their mothers – thinking of Seamus Heaney here. I think it survives here in some of the writers of Irish origin.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Argh! Well, thank you for taking the time to comment again! The expressions are wonderful, aren’t they? Tóibín’s dialogue rings completely true to me. “Didn’t she let out a roar at me…” could have come straight out of the mouth of my own aunt.

      I would love to hear more about Tóibín’s relationship with his own mother. It’s a pity the Imagine documentary (mentioned by Kim and Susan) is no longer available on the iPlayer. I wondered if someone might have posted a copy of YouTube, but sadly not. It’s interesting you should mention Seamus Heaney. I don’t know a great deal about the relationship Heaney had with his mother, but I guess he’s written about it too?

      Reply
  8. Anokatony

    Two writers I always got confused about were Colm Toibin and Colum McCann. However now I am reading the new one by McCann, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’. I’m absolutely loving it, so I don’t believe I’ll get these two writers confused any more. .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – easily done! I’m forever getting Ann Quin mixed up with Anna Kavan. The new Colum McCann sounds excellent – it’s a collection of short fiction, I believe? Looking forward to hearing more.

      Reply
  9. Séamus Duggan

    The way in which Nora is confronted by reminders of her grief in the town rings very true. Also the judgement of some few people when the widow starts to move on is something I can relate to. I often wonder if it is not the reason my own father moved soon after my mother’s death. I also remember the whispers (and the ice creams and lemonade and crisps) that would follow me and my brother when we visited my mother’s (very) small home town. Tobin is so precise on these events, clearly arising from his meditations on his own life experience.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting, isn’t it? Those details rang completely true to me as well. I still remember the pitying looks and whispers when my mother bumped into someone she knew, all the old wounds being opened up again whenever we went back to Ireland for a visit. I get the feeling from listening to The Guardian Books podcast (and from Kim’s comments above) that Tóibín has drawn upon much of his own personal experience for Nora story. In many ways, I think he’s Donal, the elder of Nora’s two lads.

      Reply
  10. BookerTalk

    This is a wonderful book for so many reasons that I can’t believe it wasn’t even long listed for the Booker. It is far superior to the other Irish big name author that did make it to the list, Anne Enright, with The Green Road. I’d resisted reading your first piece because I have yet to write my own post but my resistance crumbled on seeing this second one :) That scene in the hairdressers is priceless isn’t it? I also laughed at Nora’s experience of the music society meeting in the pub.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you loved this novel as well. The Green Road seems to have divided opinion, although I wonder if the same could be said of Enright in general. (I know a couple of people who raved about The Forgotten Waltz, whereas others just found it difficult to connect with the lead character.)

      Yes, yes, I loved the scenes about Nora new hairdo! There’s probably a whole post in that set piece alone. It’s a novel full of little gems, the small observations that bring a scene to life. I’ll keep an eye out for your review of Nora – very much looking forward to reading your take on it.

      Reply
  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Another interesting post and set of recollections, quotes Jacqui. It’s a wonderful book to deconstruct and one that really benefits from discussion, both about the reality of the cultural and geographic context and the intentions of the author and how they go about doing that, endlessly fascinating. I wish I’d seen that documentary too that Kim mentions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. Yes, I couldn’t agree more – the sign of a rich novel, I think. It’s been fascinating to see all the different comments across the range of reviews. I’m kind of hoping someone in my book group ends up picking it for discussion next year as certain aspects of Nora’s character would create quite a lot of debate. We’ll see!

      Reply
  12. litlove

    I’m going backwards through posts here (never the best idea), but am surprised how many novels are based in the 70s at the moment. It may just be coincidence, but several I have read have been set around that era, pre-feminism, pre-political correctness. I’m interested in this idea of the grief-stricken mother who struggles to hear a word spoken about the lost loved one, as the other novel I was reading suggested that the zipped-mouth tendencies of previous 20th century generations was a product of paternal culture, arising out of the belief that women spoke too much and their words could undermine a man, that it was better to suck it up and in this way stay strong.

    The situation here is quite different, though it reminds me of my mother-in-law after my father-in-law’s death. Though I felt the problem was that no one could say the ‘right’ thing. She wanted to talk about him in her way, but hearing other’s speak, and so often saying something she didn’t quite agree with or that concerned a different side of his character to the one she knew best, was horribly painful to her. I thought maybe she was trying to symbolise him in her mind and that others’ perceptions got in the way, messed with her own process. What she did love was letters written about his life from people who knew him in earlier times. I wonder why reading about him was so much easier than speaking? Anyway, I have drifted far from my original point and never mind! I must get around to reading this novel – I do have a copy of it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Your point about the paternal culture is very interesting – what’s the name of the novel you’ve been reading? I’m curious to hear more about that. I think there is an element of the woman (the wife and mother) sucking it up here. My experience of the Irish culture suggests that women were expected to remain stoical when dealing with the death of a partner or close relative. Feelings were rarely discussed — everything was internalised to the extent that women were just expected to get on with it and take care of the remaining family. I’m paraphrasing here, but at one point during the Guardian podcast, Tóibín talks about the Ireland of the late 1960s/early ’70s as being very conservative, a place where everyone talks about everything except the things that are important to them. In other words, their emotions and the major difficulties in their lives. That’s my recollection of the Irish culture, too.

      I think your mother-in-law’s experience highlights the fact that we probably all deal with grief in slightly different ways. That doesn’t make it any easier for us to cope with, whether you’re the one doing the grieving or a friend/relative of the bereaved. Even though I’ve lost both my mother and my father, I never quite know what to say to someone if they’ve lost a loved one of their own. I guess the important thing is to be there for them, to let them know you care and are willing to talk if they would like to. (I think my mother found it easier to read letters about my dad than to talk about him, too. Whenever we bumped into someone she knew, she felt ‘under the spotlight’ so to speak, as though she had to talk about him even if it was too painful at the time.)

      As for Nora Webster, I would definitely recommend it. And you already have a copy of the novel – that’s a bonus!

      Reply
      1. litlove

        The book was Cop Town by Karin Slaughter, not really your cup of tea I would have said, but very interesting for the portrayal of the 70s. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, and The Watchers by Neil Spring are all books I’ve read recently that have been set in the 70s – none of them convey the darkness of the decade as well as the Slaughter, though. I will definitely get to the Nora Webster in the near future!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, thank you! I’ve never read Karin Slaughter, but I suspect you’re right in thinking she’s probably not my cup of tea. Interesting to hear that she captures the ’70s so effectively in Cop Town – that does sound promising.

          It’s been such a long time since I read Black Swan Green that I’m struggling to remember much about it now! I do recall enjoying it, though. Hopefully you’ll get around to Nora Webster in the not too distant future – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

          Reply
  13. 1streading

    You clearly have some personal reasons for this novel resonating with you – and it’s led to a very interesting discussion above. I must admit I found Brooklyn a little dull and that’s put me off reading anything else. Of course there’s plenty of internalised emotion in Scottish fiction – usually without the humour!
    You might be interested in Ron Butlin’s last novel, Ghost Moon, which he also based on the experience of his mother.
    I was most pleased, however, to discover the Heaney poem Clearances – I’d only ever read the section where he’s peeling potatoes and hadn’t realised it was part of a sequence! In turn, it reminds me of the Tony Harrison poem Bookends about his relationship with his father.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’ll be interesting to see how Brooklyn compares to this one. I might try to read it this weekend before the film opens next week, although I doubt whether I’ll blog it. There’s only so much one can write about the same author in the space of a couple of weeks!

      Thanks for recommending Ghost Moon. I’m not familiar with Ron Butlin’s work, but I just looked it up and it sounds very poignant.

      Clearances is beautiful, isn’t it? I’m glad to have discovered it as well. I really ought to read more of Heaney’s poetry…if only there were more hours in the day.

      Reply
  14. Max Cairnduff

    Great posts Jacqui. There’s a lot in here, as you bring out, though as you know I found the passing of time needlessly unclear which detracted a bit for me. Overall I prefer Brooklyn (which should be a warning to 1st, if he didn’t like that I doubt very much he’ll like this).

    Count me as one of those by the way who loved The Forgotten Waltz, though I got the impression that Green Road wasn’t regarded as top flight Enright (though I may be quite wrong).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Max. Yes, it’s been interesting to read the range of reviews and comments on Nora – everyone seems to have found something different to say about it. I’ll go back to your Brooklyn piece once I’ve read the novel. (Saoirse Ronan’s image is already fixed in my mind when I think of the lead character.)

      The Forgotten Waltz is on the shelf (in fact, I probably bought it off the back of your review). The Green Road seems to have divided opinion, although I wonder if that’s the case with most of Enright’s work. I’ve seen quite a mix of responses to both The Green Road and The Forgotten Waltz.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I think Saoirse Ronan is an inspired piece of casting actually. It’s the first thing about the film made me potentially want to see it. She can sell quiet, which is essential here.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, she looks to be a great fit for the role. I think she’ll be able to convey Eilis’ inner emotions to give a sense of the character’s interior life. The trailer looks good, so I’m hoping the film captures some of the subtlety of the novel.

          Reply
  15. Scott W

    “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.”

    I like so much your attention to this aspect of the work, so easy to overlook in reading literature from abroad (even when “abroad” is Anglophone and just a hop and a skip – not even a jump – away). I’m sorry I didn’t take advantage of Tóibín’s presence when he was here in the Bay Area for at least a couple of years and giving occasional readings. As for reading him myself, I expect I’ll start with this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. I sometimes wonder whether my mother might have found it easier to cope with my father’s death if she had been raised in a different environment where people were more willing to talk about their feelings. It’s impossible to tell, of course, but I do think it would have helped.

      On the strength of The Guardian podcast, Tóibín comes across as a very warm and engaging speaker. I think I would go out of my way to see him at an event if he comes to London or the Home Counties in the future.

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

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s