It is a small town and it will guard you.

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.

Other reviews

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.


Filed under Irish fiction, Tóibín, Colm

15 responses to “It is a small town and it will guard you.

  1. Excellent review. I wonder if Toibin is conscious of his failure to set a specific time-period to mind. Perhaps that’s not merely a failing and is intentional? As you say, Toibin’s Enniscorthy really is a fictional, timeless place. Perhaps he wilfully disolocates a sense of chronology? I’m not sure.

    Anyway, I’ve put this one off for a while. I won’t forget reading Brooklyn in a hurry: got me out of a bit of a reading lull, and I can never figure out how he’s doing what he does.

  2. I wasn’t tempted by this as I didn’t care that much for Brooklyn. Of course, the book is getting a lot of good press. What it is with these horrible book covers and blurbs that don’t match the content?

  3. TV references of the 60s and 70s and I would be more than a little lost.
    Overall it still sounds good, in spite of your reservations but since I have Brooklyn and still not read it, I might read that first.
    I’m glad he avoided the self-realisation thread. It’s often a tad corny.
    The cover is abysmal.

  4. Max, I have this to read, but it might be a difficult book for me. I can see a few parallels between Nora and my own mother: both born and raised in Ireland, both widowed at a young age. There are some differences as my mother moved to England in the early sixties when she married my father. Still, that quote on Nora’s grief strikes a chord.

    I still haven’t read Brooklyn, so I should probably start there especially as you think its the better of the two. As a slight aside, Academy Street (the Mary Costello novel I’ve just reviewed) has been compared to Brooklyn, so you might be interested in that one.

    Also, have you read Stoner by John Williams? Your comments on Toibin’s ability to make an ordinary life seem quite extraordinary remind me of Stoner – Williams does much the same there.

  5. I have heard very mixed responses to this from readers. I have not yet read Brooklyn either though I own it. I have this uncomfortable feeling that Toibin is one of those authors whom I respect and love to hear interviewed but don’t read (Atwood would be another).

  6. Col

    Nora Webster was the first book I read this year and I loved it. I thought it was better than Brooklyn mainly because I thought Nora was a stronger character than Eilis! As for the prose – I’d agree with you on that empty room comment! For me his writing is beautiful – I think only John Banville can compete at evoking a sense of place and mood!

  7. Lee, good question. I doubt it’s intentional, given the clues in the form of TV shows etc, but admittedly they do also serve the purpose of showing how grand events are mere backdrop to most lives.

    If it is intentional though I don’t think it works, as I was thrown from the narrative confused as to how much time had passed and ended up on google. However you cut it that’s not a good outcome.

    Guy, the cover sort of matches, in that she’s a woman, she has a car and she goes to the seaside, but yes it’s grim isn’t it? Utterly generic.

    Caroline, overall it still is, but I thought Brooklyn better. I do think the newspaper reviews have been a bit too kind though, it’s good but it’s not great and he’s capable of great.

    Jacqui, definitely Brooklyn first I’d say. I haven’t read Stoner, though I plan to. What did you make of suggestions that it was sexist? Any truth to that?

    I’ll check out your Costello review.

    Rough, it’s possible, it’s funny sometimes how there can be writers we recognise are good but we just don’t connect with personally. It can’t really be helped though, it would be strange if every writer connected with every reader even where the writer is talented and the reader potentially interested.

    Mixed responses doesn’t surprise me.

    Col, she’s definitely that. Nora is a great character, a superb creation. Haven’t read Banville, but perhaps given your comment I should. I have his The Sea.

    Here’s a quote that didn’t make the review, to illustrate the room point:

    “Nora had forgotten how high the ceilings were in the rooms upstairs. The room was filled with a heavy watery grey light that hit against the grey carpet, the walls painted white, the rich blue lampshades, the blue cushions on the sofa, the blue curtains, the patterned rug and the long full bookcase, and gave the room a sort of opulence that no one coming up the lane or looking at the house from the outside or walking through the dead orchard could expect.”

  8. Thanks, Max. I’ll try Brooklyn first.

    Stoner’s excellent. Not sure I love it quite as much as others seem to, but it’s a deeply affecting story. (Slight aside, but I preferred Evan S Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety…all three are great novels though!) Stoner’s wife, Edith, is a thoroughly unlikeable character, but I didn’t find the novel misogynistic or sexist. I’ve heard that claim but couldn’t see it myself, not for a story set in academia in the first half of the 20th century. I’d be very interested to hear what you think of it…

  9. Hi Max, I haven’t read this one but have heard a lot of mixed reviews about it. I did enjoy Brooklyn though and it has stayed with me for much longer than I thought it would. Would you be happy for me to link your review to my Reading Ireland Month challenge?

  10. I’ve been misled by countless cover comments before… unfortunately, I can no longer trust them. 🙂

  11. I didn’t like Brooklyn enough to read this one but I enjoyed reading your review. I would have been lost in the news references too.

    This cover is awful because it’s so mundane. It looks cheap and it clashes with Toibin’s subtle prose. He deserves a Gallimard cover: the title of the book, his name and nothing else.

    PS: I’m looking forward to your review of Bonjour Tristesse.

  12. Mrs Bridge is definitely on my list. Don’t know the Stegner.

    Cathy, sorry for the slow reply. Mixed is fair, and I’d be delighted if you linked to me if it’s not too late.

    Literary, none of us can 🙂

    Emma, if you didn’t like Brooklyn you’re right to skip this, since it’s much the same but a bit weaker.
    Just been writing up my Tristesse quotes, so in the next day or so hopefully.

  13. Mrs Bridge would make my all-time list – it’s remarkably incisive. I ought to reread it one day.

  14. Pingback: Colm Tóibín, 'Nora Webster' - Tredynas Days

  15. Pingback: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland | JacquiWine's Journal

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