Book review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín published by Viking

Nora Webster is one of those extraordinary ordinary novels that is riveting in its everyday-ness

Nora Webster, the 10th novel from Irish master of words, Colm Tóibín, is loosely based on his own mother’s experience of grief. This novel is personal enough for to Tóibín to have struggled for 10 years to write it, so close was it to his own family’s experience.

Set in Tóibín’s hometown of Enniscorthy, Wexford County at the end of the 1960s, the brewing Troubles provide a TV level hum of discontent to an otherwise millpond life. The eponymous hero, Nora Webster, has, when we first meet her, recently been left widowed at the age of 44 with four children, two almost grown up girls and two young teenage boys. Told chronologically, the novel is the story – or as much of a story as Tóibín will ever tell – of her grief, from the raw early days to three years later, when her pain lies lighter in her heart and Maurice, her late husband, becomes a less frequent presence on the page.

Maurice’s death takes place off the page just before we meet Nora – who is, in those early days, having to contend with a constant parade of well-intentioned visitors who are lining up to offer condolences and dish out orders. From that point, we follow Nora as she sells the family’s seaside house, goes back to work, dyes her hair to the shock of the small town, goes on holiday to Spain where she sleeps in a boiler room to get away from her aunt’s snoring, and paints her back room.

There are many moments of quiet awakening, most notably in her discovery of music, something Maurice never took an interest in. Nora joins a choir and the rather pompous Gramophone Society, through which she discovers Bach and Dvořák. She even buys a record player and begins making trips to Dublin to buy records as the music lifts her out of numbness and gently nudges her into her new life post-Maurice.

Tóibín’s novel is a wonderful study in a woman’s struggle with grief and her self-discovery. Maurice’s absence is felt through her loneliness and a sense of free falling, the feeling of being trapped without the anchor of a partner by her side.

Nora Webster is written in Tóibín’s characteristically plain prose that’s stripped of any creative writing flourishes. Broken down, at times it reads like a list, or a functionary weekend diary entry, but its very plainness beautifully captures the mundane everyday of grief and the daily grind of life. This, after struggling to make ends meet after Maurice’s death. “After much argument, she had finally been granted a second pension, and both pensions had been increased in the previous year’s budget. She had not been aware at first that the extra money had been backdated by six months and she was surprised to get cheques in the post for what she thought were large sums of money.”

As ever, there’s poetry in Tóibín’s bleak prose that serves to highlight the streak of sadness that runs through Nora’s life as she wades through her grief, watching her children struggle to overcome their sorrow while finding her own way through the darkness. I was particularly touched by stuttering Donal who finds solace in photography and whose loneliness Nora is powerless to prevent.

Nora herself is a extremely private person with a steeliness that lays buried until she’s forced to defend herself or her family. She is a divisive person we come to understand, some of the characters are drawn to her while others – her sisters included – find her prickly, uncooperative, rude and, to her family she often is. The book is told from her perspective, and, while it’s never stated, they are, in their familial closeness, clearly the target of her grief fuelled anger.

But there is a warmth too to this novel that seeps through the spacious prose that pulls you into the minutia of Nora’s small life with the force that only a truly great novel can.

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