Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín
Back in 2011 I loved Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. He managed the remarkable feat of writing an engaging novel about a rather passive young woman who encounters essentially nothing but help as she makes her way through life. In lesser hands it would have been excruciatingly dull, but in fact it made my best of 2011 list.
In Nora Webster, Tóibín returns to the territory he staked out in Brooklyn. The time now is the late ’60s/early ’70s rather than the ’50s, but we’re back in the town of Enniscorthy and characters who first appeared in Brooklyn crop up in minor parts here too. Tóibín is creating his own fictional geography, as Hardy and others did before him.
Isn’t that just the most godawful cover? Mercifully I read this on kindle. That Observer quote by the way is a paraphrase, and actually fairly misleading. It’s not a love story.
Nora Webster is a fortysomething widow, with two daughters each of whom has left home and two younger sons both of whom still depend on her. Her husband, Maurice, was the love of her life and died relatively young. Now she’s steeped in grief and trying to find a life without him.
Enniscorthy is a small town, one where everybody knows everybody and they all know each other’s business. As the novel opens Maurice is newly dead and Nora spends her evenings receiving visitors who are well-meaning but also nosy, each demanding her time so they can express their condolences.
Nora’s eldest son, Donal, has developed a stutter since his father’s death. The younger, Conor, seems less obviously affected but with his brother is ever-watchful and suspicious of any potential threat of further change. Both boys have been hit hard, and Nora doesn’t know how to speak to them of what’s happened or even to what extent she should.
Nora Webster shares with Brooklyn an emphasis on ordinary drama in normal lives. It soon becomes clear that Nora largely neglected the boys while Maurice was dying, so intent on trying to be there for him that she forgot they needed her too. She’s a conscientious mother though, one who has made mistakes but who cares deeply for her children.
She thought back to that time, but certain images were so filled with detail, certain hours so filled with pure, unforgettable moments, that the remaining time seemed as though it had been watched through glass covered with rainwater. Walking with Maurice into the lobby of the hospital in the knowledge that he might not come out of there alive. The moment when he had said he would like to go one more time to look at the sky and that she was to wait for him in the lobby, let him do it alone. And then the watching as he began to cry when he reached the door.
Without Maurice, Nora needs to return to work. As in Brooklyn those around the central character are largely keen to help. A friendly nun to help her back to an old job, left when she married all those years ago. She runs into a petty and domineering office manager who proves something of a small-scale enemy, but there are hints that even this foe has a humanity beyond that Nora sees. Again as in Brooklyn, there are people who may not be easily likable, but no villains.
What follows then is a gradual tale of Nora adjusting to life without Maurice. She sells their holiday home, as much because she can’t bear to return to it without Maurice as because she needs the money. She works, looks after the boys, starts to socialise again with friends and family. Nothing particularly unusual.
Eilis in Brooklyn is young and has choices. Nora has far fewer. She’s older, she’s not emigrating to a new country, she has children. She’s constantly aware of the judgements of those around her, concerned when she buys new clothes or has her hair dyed of what people will think and whether it’s too soon since Maurice’s death to consider such things. It’s not that she’s easily cowed, she’s distinctly not, but she’s one of these people and she has to live with them.
For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her [daughter]. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.
What works wonderfully here is the sense that Nora and Maurice had a rich and fulfilling marriage. It’s evident she loved him deeply, and him her. A lesser novelist would make her finding her own way a voyage of self-realisation, in which she puts aside the limitations he’d placed on her so as to find her true self. Tóibín instead shows that where she had chosen one life, which meant leaving other possible lives behind, now she has to choose another life; not better or truer, merely different.
Later in the novel Nora takes up an interest in music, joining an appreciation society and taking singing lessons. Maurice had no interest in such things and would have found them pretentious, a suitable subject for gentle mocking. For all his many merits, he was a conservative man born of a conservative time and culture. One of the many threads running through this novel is the sense of small-town Ireland as a provincial place suspicious of culture or interests everyone else doesn’t already share.
Nora remembered a night in the new Assembly Hall of the Presentation Convent when Maurice and herself and Jim had gone to a fund-raising concert for the St Vincent de Paul Society. Laurie O’Keefe was conducting an orchestra. As her style grew more vigorous and expressive, Maurice and Jim began to laugh quietly and she had nudged Maurice in disapproval. Halfway through the concert Jim had to make his way to the toilet, all the while silently shaking with laughter. Nora had given Maurice a fierce look before he had to follow Jim. Neither of them returned to their seats. Afterwards, she remembered, she had found them both standing sheepishly at the back of the hall.
Tóibín is particularly brilliant in his quiet portrayal of depression, of Nora’s deep glacial grief; the impossibility of conversation after the enormity of a death.
At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?
Slowly though she does of course return to life. As the book progresses Nora’s character reasserts itself. It becomes apparent that in fact she’s a fairly formidable woman, determined and intelligent and held in a certain amount of fear and respect by most of those who know her. She’s too independent-minded to be easy company, with ironically her marriage to Maurice having perhaps made her more approachable with his easy manner making social inroads for the both of them.
The book becomes shot through with a certain humour, not least as Nora realises how much of what goes on around her she’s left out of because people are too intimidated by her to tell her about it. She learns of a sister’s engagement by accident through her own daughter, the sister having been too scared of Nora’s disapproval to tell her. She starts to express political opinions, something she’d previously left to Maurice and which decidedly discomfits the men around her.
Unfortunately, while there’s much here to praise, this isn’t as successful a book as Brooklyn. Partly that’s because with Nora as self-contained and closed-off as she is she tends not to talk much with the other characters, which meant that at times they became hard to distinguish. Nora and the boys are sharply defined, but her sisters and aunts blurred together for me and from time to time I had to flick back to check who someone was. That’s forgivable in something like The Luminaries, but not really in a novel as small screen as this one is.
Worse, I became utterly confused at one point by the chronology. Tóibín uses the age-old technique of having the characters establish period by reference to tv news reports that Nora or the children watch. That’s fine, except that unfortunately my knowledge of late 1960s/early 1970s Irish politics is near non-existent. At one point I thought the action had moved on by a decade or so, only realising I was wrong by the fact the boys were still in school. I had to resort to google in the end to work out what year it was.
Looking back at my comments on Brooklyn I see that I mention that I spent the first half of that thinking it was set in the 1930s rather than the 1950s. Tóibín is tremendous at evoking space, sound, how light plays in a room, but he’s frankly terrible at period. His characters exist in a timeless Ireland of memory. Both Brooklyn and Nora Webster are ostensibly set in specific decades against a specific backdrop of events, really though they’re set in the endless years of Tóibín’s own childhood.
It’ll be interesting to see how Nora Webster settles into memory. There’s much to love in it, not least Tóibín’s incredible prose which remains an utter joy to me. He can describe an empty room in a way that fills it with utter beauty.
The problems though of characterisation for the supporting cast and the muddy sense of time weakened it for me considerably. Still, Nora Webster herself is an incredible creation, an utterly credible and flawed human being who though quite ordinary is extraordinary in the way only real people can be.
Plenty in the press, mostly much more favourable than I’ve been above. None I’ve seen so far in the blogosphere. If I’ve missed some though please do let me know in the comments.