Tag Archives: Ireland

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.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Costello’s debut novel, Academy Street, focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother, a life cut short by tuberculosis.

Academy street

Tess is considered too young to attend her mother’s funeral – she must stay at home for the day. Tess is seven at the time, and we get the sense that her family have told her very little about her mother’s death. When she sees the coffin being manoeuvred down the stairs Tess realises her mother has gone:

The stairs sweep up and turn to the right and it is here on the turn, by the stained-glass window, that her uncle’s back comes into view. Light is streaming in. Her heart starts to beat fast. She sees the back of a neighbour, Tommy Burns, and her other uncle, struggling. And then she understands. At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. (pg. 5, Canongate)

This pivotal event in Tess’ childhood sets the tone for the decades that follow. Life on the farm is very quiet and Tess retreats into herself.  She is deeply affected by the loss of her mother. Tess’ father is strict and taciturn; her closest friends are her older sister, Claire, and farm hand, Mike Connolly.

The remainder of the first third of the novel touches on key moments in Tess’ childhood, most notably an encounter which renders her unable to speak for several months. We follow Tess as she moves to boarding school and then to Dublin where she trains as a nurse. During her time as a nurse, she is kind and polite to her colleagues but retreats into the shadows wherever possible:

She goes to the cinema with a girl from Cork, but mostly avoids social gatherings and nights out. The shyness she feels among others, and the terrible need to fit in, cause her such anxiety that when the evening arrives the prospect of going among people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick. Whenever possible, she opts for night duty, the low lights and the hush of the ward offering the closest thing to solitude available in a working life. (pg. 52)

By this stage in Tess’ life her beloved sister, Claire, has moved to New York. Each time Tess returns to Easterfield, the family home, she notices the changes: Mike Connolly has moved on, too old and ill to tend the farm any longer; the family’s dog has passed away; her younger brother, Oliver, has grown up. Tess realises there is little left for her in Ireland, so she decides to follow in Claire’s footsteps by moving to America. (By now we are in the early 1960s.)

The remainder of the novel concerns itself with Tess’ life in New York. She moves in with her Aunt Molly and another boarder, Fritz. As the months pass, Tess begins to get accustomed to the rhythm of the city. She finds a nursing job at the hospital; she seeks solace in books. New York buzzes with vitality, but as Tess goes about her days the shadow of loneliness that has characterised her life continues to accompany her.

In time, Tess befriends another Irish nurse, Anne, and the two women rent an apartment together. When Tess joins her flatmate on a picnic, she meets a young Irish lawyer named David. He reminds Tess of a quieter, brighter version of her brother, Oliver, and for the first time in her adult life she feels the pull of attraction:

She was aware of every breath, the flex of every muscle, where his eyes fell, his hands. To be this watchful, this attuned to a man, a stranger, excited and confused her. (pg.71)

Tess longs to see David again. We get a sense that she is wrestling with the uncertainty of these strange new feelings, torn between the possibility of love and a natural tendency to withdraw.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess – it’s as if we have near complete access to her thoughts and emotions. This next quote should help illustrate the style – Tess and David are alone together at Anne’s wedding reception:

He looked out across the lawn, into the twilight. In the silence that ensued she arrived at a complete understanding of him. Recalling this moment later she could not say how she had come to this understanding, only that she had, she had fathomed something deep in him. It was more than fellow feeling. It was as if she had perceived all the joy and fear and pain that had ever entered his heart, and he had let her. For an instant he had let her love him. (pg. 83)

This is quite a difficult novel to review without revealing key aspects of the plot, and to say any more might be a step too far.

Academy Street is a poignant novel, the deeply moving story of a quiet life. The tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the heartache.

Costello has a great eye for detail, aspects that add a sense of authenticity or something extra to the narrative. To give you an example, there is a telling moment as Tess leaves the family home to fly to America. She turns her head to the lone ash among a group of beech trees and sees for the first time ‘a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk, the flesh forced to grow over the spikes in pained little folds and swellings.’ A reflection, perhaps, of the hurt in her life. Religion and Biblical references also feature in the novel, particularly the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I’ll end with a favourite quote from this notable debut novel. Tess has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her father. Prior to flying to America, there comes a moment when Tess reaches an understanding with him, and she catches a glimpse of everything he has suffered:

A peaceful lull falls on the kitchen and she looks at him. ‘Will I cut your hair?’ she asks. He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. (pg. 54)

I read Academy Street to participate in Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Naomi (The Writes of Women), Eric (Lonesome Reader), Kim (Reading Matters), Susan (A Life in Books) and Clare (A Little Blog of Books).

Academy Street is published by Canongate. Source: personal copy (eBook). Book 14/20 in my #TBR20.