Tag Archives: Ireland

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan

Last November, when my book group chose the books for 2023, I recommended The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan. The novel had good reviews and I remembered reading and enjoying The Spinning Heart (2012). The suggestion that it concerned some strong Irish women made it an attractive choice. So here we are, 12 months later, ready to discuss this gem of a book.

The Queen of Dirt Island

The story is structured in a series of two-page chapters, which roll forward and provide a rhythmic beat to one’s reading. It’s a steady story which unfolds over a couple of decades on the edge of a remote and rural Irish housing estate in County Tipperary. It begins with the birth of one of the women, Saoirse. Her father is killed in a road accident even before she is brought home from hospital. He mother, Mary, has been rejected by her family for becoming pregnant. But her mother-in-law, Eileen known as Nana, looks out for her, becomes her friend, and eventually comes to live with Mary and Saoirse.

The story of the women’s struggles, within their families, on the edges of their community, against poverty, and the demands of life, is carried forward through the steady pulse of the short chapters. The prose has a lilt to it, and the speech of the women, their idioms and imagery, are from the best Irish traditions.

Someone had asked Paudie to hide guns in the shed, down behind a load of bales of hay. And other stuff, too. Nana wasn’t sure what. Semtex, Eileen. What in the name of God and His Blessed Mother is Semtex? It doesn’t sound like anything that could ever do any good. And apparently we could all have been blown to Kingdom Come over it. Jim Gildea told me. You’re lucky, Mary, he said. Someone was watching over ye the way it was all brought out in the open now, before Paudie was in too deep. In too deep, Jim Gildea said! As if a shed full of guns and Sem-fucking-tex isn’t deep enough! (21)

Saoirse learns about the world from the conversation of Mary and her mother-in-law Eileen. She is well protected until she is a teenager. In the extract above she hears about her uncle’s arrest.

There’s a great deal of humour in the talk of the adult women as Saoirse grows up. She learns about her world through overhearing their conversations. Despite the lack of punctuation it is always clear who is speaking. When Saoirse reveals that she is pregnant, the chapter called IMMACULATE, is one long paragraph of her mother’s fury. 

How in the fucking fuck could you have gotten pregnant? […] I thought you were different. I thought you’d be something. God forgive me, it’s my own fault for trusting you. I thought behind it all that you were good. (73-74)

The story is built on the strength of the four women: from the grandmother, through Mary to Saoirse and to Pearl, Saoirse’s child. Mary is the queen of Dirt Island. She inherits it from her parents, despite her brother’s ambitions to take it from her. She is the character in the book written by Saoirse ‘s boyfriend, Josh. A heroine, redrawn from Saoirse’s own memories to create something ‘unrecognizable, alien, monstrous’ (214). Josh spiced up the story that we know, to distort Saoirse’s father and his death, and her mother’s role in Paudie’s misdeeds. Later the novel is rewritten and becomes a classic, included in the Irish school curriculum that Pearl is taught.

This distortion reminds the reader of the strength of these women, and we know they love and support each other through daily life, growing up, marriages, births, deaths and betrayals. They shape Saoirse childhood, and then Pearl’s. They have warmth and pride, fury and revenge, love and pity. 

We finish this book, having enjoyed its rhythms and impetus, and the slow march of the decades, aware that we have been given a glimpse of loving life and community. And we make sense of the epigram.

Let the books remember the local battles.
Re-write the plot. Let the harvest wither.
This is your life. She is your great event.
Keep her in the sun.
[‘History’, Mary O’Malley]

What will the other members of my book group think?

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan first published in 2022. I used the Penguin edition. 245pp 

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, words, Writing

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Long ago, before Covid (the pandemic as well as my own sad bout earlier this May), I read A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume and was very impressed. I reviewed it in May 2018 on this blog.

What impressed me was the close attention she gave to details of the local wildlife by a young woman struggling with life. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding Irish countryside, often finding dead wildlife, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. 

In Seven Steeples it is the slow deterioration of things which are catalogued.

Seven Steeples

A couple decide to live together, away from their friends, family, history, and the world in a house on the West Coast of Ireland. ‘Them in and the world out.’ They stay for 8 years. Gradually the couple become alike, and the text follows the disintegration of the house, their dogs and their separateness, the grounds of the house and its contents as they simply live.

At times I reacted against the pair, seeing them as without energy or determination (solutions to problems are usually to do nothing), unproductive, even pathetic. This is signalled by the failure of the couple to climb the mountain for seven years, from which they would be able to see seven steeples, among other sights. But the novel challenges dominant ideas about how we should live. This couple, Bell (Isobel) and Sigh (Simon) just exist within the context of very little action. They have no overarching purpose in their decision to live in this way for eight years, only a non-purpose. 

Neither had experienced any unusual unhappiness in early life, any notable trauma. Instead they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear. (17-18)

In an age when humans appear to have made irreversible damage to our natural world, it is interesting to contemplate how to live and make fewer traces. We must collect our benefits, pay our taxes, buy our food, repair our vans, and always dispose of unwanted material items. The experiences of Sigh and Bell contrast vividly with life as most of us live it.

It is difficult for humans not to leave some traces, and in any case the couple’s environment itself cannot help but alter the house and the landscape, the garden and the view. Most of the novel is a detailed description of the small, incremental alterations brought to their lives over the eight years. During this time both the dogs and the humans become interchangeable. 

The descriptions of the slow changes to their environment and their house were the main pleasures in reading this novel.

Red-hot pokers, which they had not planted, appeared in a clump at the end of the driveway – nine fireworks mounted atop the green trail of their ascent, nodding an ominous welcome.
The lilies, which they hadn’t planted either, bowed their discoloured bonnets and stuck out their bloated, orange tongues as a beacon to the hoverflies that crawled inside and supped the last of the lily juice. The cones had fantastic acoustics. A gentle, guzzling buzz became the chatter of a cassette player on fast-forward.
There was a sense of hysteria amongst the insects. (150)

The details in every paragraph are vibrant and telling.

By early autumn the house teemed with insects.
There were the moths that entered last thing at night and tucked themselves into the pockets of cardigans. There was an earwig Sigh carried around in his shoe for an entire day, unharmed, and a mosquito that ravaged Bell in her sleep, a dozen bites from scalp to crotch. There was a posse of fruit flies suspended above the compost bucket like fat dots of floating, vibrating dust. There was a black slug the size of a mouse that criss-crossed the kitchen rug at night, the streak of its slime tracing the outlines of the imitation oriental symbols: a star, the tree of life.
What we need, Sigh said, is a kitchen hedgehog. (156)

There is very little story here, which will not please many readers. Instead Sara Baume gives us a very close look at how insects, plants, weather and so forth interact on human lives, and what happens when the humans do not resist. It’s very strange and very powerful.

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, published in 2022 by Tramp Press. 254pp

JacquiWine’s review on her blog drew my attention to this novel. You can find her review here from February 2023, in which she describes 

a beautifully-crafted story of withdrawal from conventional society for the peace of a minimalist existence. Alongside this central theme, the novel has much to say about the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, reviewed on Bookword blog in May 2018. 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Actress by Anne Enright 

I picked up a copy of this novel in my local Oxfam bookshop. I was very impressed by The Green Road which I had read some years ago. I remember being especially moved by the section about the experiences of one of the characters in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991. I found it unbearable sad. And also in that novel an excessive Christmas food shopping trip made a deep impression on me. She does families and Ireland so well.

I was not disappointed by Actress, although I missed its publication. We are again in the territory of families, this time a mother-daughter relationship. As the title suggests, stardom, fame and the commercial value of female sexuality are themes of this novel.

Actress

The novel is narrated by Norah, the daughter of the fictitious great Irish actress, Katherine O’Dell. She is looking back from her middle age, at her mother’s life and death. Norah is a novelist, with several successful books to her name, but she is aware that she has never explored her relationship with her mother in her fiction. From time to time she addresses her husband, but the focus of the story is the relationship between the star, the mother, her social circle and the young Norah. 

This is the opening paragraph of the novel.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what was she like as an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though they, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might themselves be secretly askew. (1)

The book is framed by the visit of a PhD student who does indeed want to know what she was like and wishes to explore what she calls the sexual style of Katherine O’Dell. She comes to interview Norah many years after Katherine O’Dell’s death. In later correspondence she suggests that Katherine was the first Irish feminist. The reader is being shown multiple interpretations of a life.

Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and one of her key roles is to act being Irish despite being born and growing up in London in a family of travelling actors. They come to Ireland during the war when she is a young woman, and her career takes off from there. She adopts Ireland fully, performing her Irishness in her Hollywood parts, in the Irish roles that she is given to play such as the young Irish lass selling Irish butter in an iconic advertisement, and she adopts the Irish theatre world and the cause of Irish republicanism. 

Norah is unable to discover the identity of her father. But as she tells the story she keeps circulating back to her happy childhood in Dublin when she is much loved by her mother and enjoys her theatrical circle. When Norah becomes and active teen, Kath is less able to forgive the men she sleeps with, perhaps feeling that they are stealing her away from her mother.

There have many, many men in Katherine O’Dell’s life, both in the official Hollywood version and in the life that Norah experiences. The priest, Father Des, is her psychiatrist, but also her long-term lover. There are producers and actors, and the men who dominate the Dublin literary scene. Some of the events occur during the Troubles, and some into the ‘80s. It is in the nature of stardom, especially sexualised stardom that eventually the fame will recede, the parts become fewer and the audience less familiar with the actor and the periods of resting are extended. 

She was much sought after, until she isn’t. She begins to show some rather manic behaviours, culminating in shooting Boyd O’Neill in the foot. He was one of her mother’s contacts in the film industry, but he does not take her scripts seriously. This was his evidence in court:

All he was doing, he said. All he was doing, with my mother’s idea, or synopsis, or whatever it was she had sent to him, was bouncing the ball. It was a way to keep his connections interested until the right idea came along. […]
He really thought he was doing my mother’s idea a favour by having it himself. When you see this happen, as I did that day, you see it quite a lot, and it remains a very strange thing – the ability of a man like Boyd to assume it is their interest which makes something interesting. As though, if he shut his eyes, the world would be really dull.
Anyway, she shot him for it. There was always that to consider. (239-40)

She is incarcerated in an insane asylum. And dies soon after her release. Norah investigates her mother’s life over the next years, resulting in this novel. It is beautifully written, precise, and with telling details and images that resonate. Picture a mother going off like milk, as in the first paragraph, for example. 

Anne Enright

Anne Enright

Born in 1962 and raised in Ireland, Anne Enright has won some prestigious prizes, including being the first Laureate for Irish fiction 2015-2018. In 2007 she won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. She has written short stories, non-fiction and seven novels. She lives in Dublin.

Actress by Anne Enright, published in 2020 by Vintage. 264pp. Actress was longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Related posts

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Bookword, February 2016)

Actress by Anne Enright review – boundless emotional intelligence, by Kate Kellaway (The Guardian, February 2020)

Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame, by Alexandra Hass (The Guardian, February 2020)

Reviewed on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (July 2020)

Reviewed on Kate Vane’s blog (February 2020)

In January 2020 Anne Enright was a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

In today’s world, where largescale and terrible things are happening (yes, Covid pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine) and where morality and honesty appear to have deserted the government (yes, sending refugees to Rwanda, lying about Brexit and partygate), it’s important to celebrate decent behaviour. There is not a great deal us little people can do, but we can behave with decency and sympathy, even if it risks local condemnation. So it is, in this short novel: a celebration of decent behaviour.

I originally gave it as a birthday present to a reader-friend, and she lent it to me having greatly enjoyed it first.

Small Things Like These

Set in 1985 in the small costal town of New Ross, in Wexford, Ireland. Christmas approaches and Bill Furlong is busy with fulfilling the winter orders for fuel. He runs a successful business supplying coal, wood and anthracite to the town, despite starting out as the illegitimate son of a single woman, now dead, and an unknown father. When she became pregnant, his mother was not thrown out by her employer, or sent in shame to a mother and baby home. Instead, Furlong grew up in Mrs Wilson’s house and was well treated.

He married Eileen and they have five girls. They are a loving family and are just about able to afford to have a decent Christmas, getting the presents that the girls have requested. Some of the most satisfying scenes are those spent with his family, for example when Eileen and the girls make the Christmas cake, and the girls write their letters to Santa. Such scenes, however, remind Furlong of the disappointments and poverty of his youth.

One of his deliveries is to the local convent. Furlong makes an early start and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed. Although the nuns treat her as if she has accidentally spent the night there, Furlong is uncertain.

As the days pass, he is increasingly uneasy. He must face the truth of his own origins, the silence of the town about the inhabitants and purpose of the convent, and the warnings that the convent nuns have power that could compromise Furlong in New Ross. Finally, he takes action.

The small things of the title include his marriage and daughters, their preparations for Christmas, his decency towards his workforce and generosity to his customers. It also includes the townsfolk turning their backs on whatever is happening in the convent, and generally ‘minding their own business’. Expectations and tradition keep everything in its place, and he is warned off tangling with the Convent. He defies this tradition.

Moral, moving, very quiet and short.

Claire Keegan

Although she has lived in other places, Claire Keegan was born in Ireland in 1968. She has previously published 3 collections of short stories, winning prizes and accolades for them: Antarctica (1999); Walk the Blue Fields (2007); Foster (2010)

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, published in 2021 by Faber & Faber. 166pp

Related Posts

In her review Kate Vane is frustrated that the story did not include the implications of Furlong’s action for his family and business. But she has strong praise for the novella. Kate Vane Blog October 2021.

Susan, on A Life in Books blog also praises this short book, and expects to delve into more writing by Claire Keegan, November 2021.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

A Line Made by Walking is about the pain of being alive. I quote from the blurb. Frankie’s pain comes from not yet knowing how to be alive. She is in her mid-twenties, and struggling with expectations: to have achieved specialist knowledge, a career path, social connections, a partner, and having left a loving family.

Frankie’s troubles are (I’m quoting from the blurb again) absorbing, heart-wrenchingly real, painful, raw, compelling, poignant … But she never quite loses the ability to observe and reflect on her own suffering, and eventually to take the line that will help her escape.

Sara Baume’s writing achieves its impact through plenty of self-absorption by Frankie but no self-pity; observations that strike hard but provide no winsome lessons from suffering; lots of nature but much of it known through corpses.

A Line Made by Walking

Frankie is 25, has been brought up in Ireland, studied at Art College in Dublin and then worked in an art gallery in the city. One day she decides she can no longer do it and so packs her bags, calls her mother and goes home. Calling her mother is a bit of a theme.

After a couple of weeks with her parents she arranges to live on her own in her grandmother’s bungalow, believing that the solitary life will restore her ability to be alive. Writing in the first person, Frankie describes her everyday life, not quite coping, isolated, outside relationships. She meets the neighbour, a lonely old man called Jinks, who tries to help her find the Lord. And her family call in to check on her, and to maintain the bungalow as Frankie neglects it. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding countryside, often finding dead wild life, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. There are photographs in the relevant chapters.

Interspersed with the dead animals are flashbacks to her earlier life, and to her recollections of art works (painting, installations, performance pieces) that relate to or explain her situation.

Works about Lower, Slower Views, I test myself: Richard Long, A Line Made by Walking, 1967. A short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass. Long doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which he walks, but sometimes he builds sculptures from materials supplied by chance. Then he leaves them behind to fall apart. He specialises in barely-there art. Pieces which take up as little space in the world as possible. And which do as little damage. (261-2)

This is the pattern for the many paragraphs referring to works of art and they occur throughout. She is especially interested in installations, performance pieces and other creations, such as Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, which I think of as the exploded shed. She is interested in works that record repetition, physical feats that are interrupted before they finish. Often the concept in the mind of the creator seems more important than the experience of viewing the art work. There is an appendix that references them all.

But take a look again at what Frankie says about Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking. The repetition is there, ‘footsteps back and forth’. I rewrite it to make clear Frankie’s frame of mind:

Frankie doesn’t like to interfere with the landscapes through which she walks, but sometimes she imagines sculptures built from materials supplied by chance. She specialises in being barely-there. She takes take up as little space in the world as possible. And does as little damage …

Her reflections on life, not just her own life, cut very close to the bone. Here’s a section that jumped out at me.

The point of being here, alone in the bungalow on turbine hill is to recover. This is what I told my mother before she agreed to let me care take, and the only thing I can do to stop her from worrying is to try and look well when she comes to visit. Because she cannot see inside my head, outside my head I must be nourished and calm and bright. The straightforwardness of this comforts me: body over brain.

With only a poorly stocked village shop, the absence of choice is liberating. I buy whatever they have and challenge myself to cobble it into something. Here on turbine hill, meals are the only thing that structure my days so I force myself to maintain their pattern. Because structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli, are what sanity consists of. (32-33)

I find that final sentence comforting. May be all that many of us are doing is achieving a basic level of ‘structure and maintenance and pattern, and broccoli’ and we can hold on to the idea that these are what sanity consists of.

I was just wishing Sara Baume would get on with it, get Frankie’s story to the end – there weren’t many pages to go – when, without calling her mother, she did and wooomph, Frankie spread her wings (compare to dead robin), leapt away (cf dead hare) abandons subterfuge (ditto fox, crow etc) … and that’s all I’ll say.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, published by Windmill Books (Penguin) in 2017. 307pp. Short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

Sara Baume’s previous novel was Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2015), which won many prizes.

Related links

Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking, 1967, Tate Gallery. That image can be accessed here.

Lonesome Reader reviewed A Line Made by Walking on her blog in February last year. She focuses on the place of art in life, and Frankie’s belief in the redeeming value of art over institutionalised belief systems. You can read it here.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal

Not having read My Name is Leon, I had no idea what to expect from The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal. I chose it because I had read nothing on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 long list and I recognised the author’s name. Indeed I have supported her Unbound project for an anthology of working class writers.

We follow the main character Mona in three timeframes. Mona is a child living by the sea on the west coast of Ireland, then a young woman in Birmingham married to the man she loves, pregnant with their first child, and finally nearing her 60thbirthday living alone in a seaside town in the south of England. We learn that her life has been punctured by loss, most poignantly of her child, but also of her husband William, on the night of the Birmingham pub bomb.

The Trick to Time

Given that the reader must follow Mona in three timeframes it is helpful that her father gave her some sound advice about time early on. They are on the beach and he is trying to persuade Mona to spend more time with her mother before she dies.

One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

He stands up, brushes the sand from his trousers, and Mona jumps on his back for the ride home. He lollops over the dunes with her hands round his neck and her chest against his ribs.

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. (21)

In this novel the characters relate to time depending on where they are in life. The young woman who helps Mona in her shop has all the time in the world. Mona is approaching 60 and feels that time is no longer on her side so she must change things for the better before drifting further.

Birdie, a cousin of her mother’s, was in love with Mona’s father, and waited for him until Mona left for Birmingham. Time was cruel to her, taking the love of her life within the year.

Val was a student nurse who attended to Mona when her daughter was still born. It was Val who found the body and brought it to Mona to hold while the hospital was in uproar from the bombing. These hours with her daughter, Beatrice, allows Mona to grieve. Every year she visits Val and her daughter’s grave, marking the years since Beatrice was lost.

Time and loss are explored with great poignancy. Mona’s love of her husband William hangs over the decades of Mona’s life that follow his loss. Love is a great healer, but it is not omnipotent.

The characters are sustained by strong communal bonds throughout. The Irish have their family connections. After the dreadful night of the IRA bomb, Mona is cared for by William’s aunts and when she looses William as well she returns to her childhood home to the care of her cousin Bridie.

In Birmingham the Irish community is strongly connected, but this leads to bad feelings after the bomb attack. In her English seaside town Mona is loosely connected to her neighbours and to those whose work supports her doll business. Some connections endure for years, like Birdie’s for Mona’s father, or the affection between Val and Mona.

To help people with the loss of their child, Mona uses an imaginative technique, getting the parents to articulate the life that might have been, recreating the time that the child would have lived. In the end she receives comfort for her own losses in this way.

It is a moving and engaging novel.

Kit de Waal

Kit de Waal was born in 1960 and brought up in the Irish community of Birmingham, the daughter of an Irish mother and a Caribbean father. Kit de Waal is her pen name. Her previous novel, My Name is Leonwas well received, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize, and the Desmond Elliot Prize and winning the Kerry group Irish novel of the Year Award in 2017.

She has established a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, University of London, to support writers from disadvantaged background. Another project is a collection of working class writing with Unbound, which she has edited, is called Common People: an anthology of working class writers.  It is due to be published in 2018. I am proud to have supported this initiative.

In April, The Trick to Timewas reviewed on Heavenali’s blog.

The Trick to Time was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

The Trick to Timeby Kit de Waal, published in 2018 by Viking (an imprint of Penguin Books). 262pp

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

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.

195 Nora W coverThe story

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.

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

 

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews