I love to read a book that isn’t brash and that has something quiet to say. Nora Webster is such a read. The story moves steadily but without dramatic events, at the tempo of ordinary lives. The significant events are the daily interactions with neighbours and family, someone’s choice of words, the purchase of a recording, a short drive to the coast. This is the work of a writer who knows and understands the warp and weft of life.
The novel opens when Nora Webster has just been widowed and we follow her life over the next 3 years in Wexford, Ireland in the late 1960s as she moves through her grief.
Nora has four children: two young boys who live with her and two girls who are older and making their lives elsewhere. The death of Nora’s husband Maurice means she has to has to help her children with their grief as well as her own. She struggles to find what she wants from her life without her husband, and eventually without her four children as they grow up.
The novel shows us the important of small things as we see Nora almost knocked sideways by grief and the difficulties of raising the boys on her own. We enjoy her steely independence of spirit as well as the consistent if quiet support of her family. Her progress is gradual and there are set-backs. She is unable to prevent damage to her young boys and in some ways contributes to it for she does not invite conversation with those around her about the difficult things in life.
Driven by her circumstances to reconstruct her life she reluctantly embraces a return to work, new friendships, new projects, and repairs her connections with her family. She stands up for her sons in a manner that demonstrates her determination and her ability to take on the educational establishment in 1970s Wexford. By the quiet close of the novel you have come to realise that Nora was diminished in some respects by her marriage. Her spirit along with the passage of time and the needs of her sons has brought her to a new way of being Nora.
In Nora Colm Toibin has succeeded in creating an engaging character. She goes a long way not to offend her community, but increasingly undertakes small acts of resistance. We are introduced to her in this way.
‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her waiting for a response.
‘I know,’ she said.
‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’
Nora closed the garden gate.
‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.
‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’
She wondered if she could go back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house. (1)
From this opening paragraph we already understand a great deal about Nora’s character and that something has changed in her life that allows a man to shift his behaviour towards her. It establishes that the novel will deal with the changes she faces and how she navigates them and how she responds to people around her. Acutely conscious of her own discomfort, but also intensely private about her reactions, she is neither put down nor defeated.
In addition we can catch the Irish lilt, the intrusiveness of Tom O’Connor, and Nora’s apparent passivity. And the simple sentence ‘Nora closed the garden gate’ adds a small beat as we contemplate the scene, an everyday exchange between neighbours. The resistance to Tom O’Connor is slight, but such acts grow to include a misguided haircut and taking up singing.
Other things I liked
The quiet style of the writing matches Nora’s character. It means that the novel is compelling without it being a page-turner. Here is an example: Nora’s reflections on the different pace at which she and her sons are coming to terms with Maurice’s death.
She pictured the house, how strangely filled with absence it must be. She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her sense of watching every scene, every moment for signs of what was missing, or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years. (116)
While I wished that Nora would accept the support and help offered, her struggle with grief, with the enforced changes to her life, with making her own way is a very affirming story.
I enjoyed the themes of music in Nora’s life and photography in her son’s. Both come to these arts knowing little about them and with some perseverance both find their feet and new connections with others through their interest.
The novel has been well received: Nora Webster won the 2015 Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2014 and the 2015 Folio Prize.
There was an excellent review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times in October 2014.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (2014), published by Penguin 311pp
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