This is my review of Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín.
This is the detailed and dispassionate portrait of Nora Webster, widowed suddenly in her forties with two young sons to bring up, plus two older daughters who still need a mother’s support although they are living away from home at school or university. The story is set in close-knit, convention-bound, small-town coastal Ireland around 1970 where sexual equality was an alien concept, and the troubles brewing over the border in Belfast cast gathering background shadows. An intelligent woman who was prevented by her father’s early death from obtaining the college education of which she is capable, Norma is on the surface a dutiful wife and mother, unaccustomed to pleasing herself, but she is capable of sudden decisions which may seem out of character or even a little extreme, perhaps a result of the shock of grief.
Tóibín’s plain prose creates scenes and inner thoughts of acute realism which are saved from tedium for me – if not for many other readers – by his skill in the gradual revelation of details. What caused the death of Nora’s husband Maurice? What did he do for a living? How will Nora manage for money? How will she cope with a tyrannical office manager who bears a long-held grudge against her? Why does her son Donal begin to behave “out of character” at school? We see how, although superficially “carrying on as usual” all her four children have been affected by their father’s death in different ways. Nora herself, although for the most part continuing to fulfil her duties as a parent, and trying to build a new work and social life, often feels that the world around her is unreal, nothing has any meaning and she is adrift, only at ease when avoiding other in the refuge of her own house, or in sleep.
Throughout the book, Tóibín continually primes what seems like the trigger for some dramatic event, only for the tension to drift away, as is often the case in daily life. This may prove disappointing until one accepts that this novel is largely a study of grief, it would seem inspired by the author’s own experience of losing his father at an early age. It is also a detailed portrayal of the dynamics and relationships of family life, in which Nora seems always to have been an outsider, her natural self-containment now sharpened by the pain of her loss, although at times she displays great empathy, insight and sardonic humour. Another intriguing aspect is the power of the local gossip grapevine which sometimes reaches the level of farce. Everyone knows Nora’s business, or some distorted version of it, culminating in an interfering, it would seem at times telepathic, local nun: it occurred to Norma “that in any other century, Sister Thomas would have been burned as a witch”.
Hearing the author give a talk on this book also made me appreciate how much of his work is based on the part of Ireland (round Enniscorthy) where he grew up, a result of his belief that one can only write with authenticity about what one knows, and his fascination with places which people who have never met may experience differently but which all recognise, even long after they have changed.
This is not a depressing book, for it reinforces the essential truth that “time eases pain” although it may not really “heal” , and “life goes on”.