Category Archives: Tóibín, Colm

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

… the kindness of strangers

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Years ago when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Heather Blazing I was blown away by it. It was well plotted and had interesting characters but that wasn’t what really impressed me. It was the writing. The sheer quality of it.

It’s odd then that it was years before I read another Tóibín – his first novel titled The South. I didn’t love as much but I still enjoyed it. Years passed again though and I still didn’t read more by him. I can’t say why.

A little while back now I bought a Kindle. When I loaded it up with books for some recent holidays I noticed that Brooklyn was available. I’d read a lot about it and on a whim bought and downloaded a copy. I then largely forgot about it as I always seem to forget about Tóibín. When I finished my recent Gerald Kersh though I decided I wanted something quiet and beautifully written.

Quiet and beautifully written are words I associate with Tóibín’s work. Brooklyn isn’t an exception. It’s a simple and arguably dull tale with a rather passive central character who largely goes with the flow of (not particularly eventful) events. If not for the writing it would be unreadable.

Eilis Lacey is a sensible young woman living in rural Ireland in the 1950s (and not the 1930s as I thought for the first half or so of the novel) with her mother and her older and more sophisticated sister. There are few job opportunities. Her brothers have both moved to England where they seem to be doing well but they rarely get to visit home. Eilis is studying bookkeeping, but the only job she gets is working on the floor of a local shop.

Father Flood, over from the US, notices Eilis and is unhappy that there’s nothing better available for her. After discussions with Eilis’s mother and sister they all decide that the best thing for her is emigration. Father Flood can help set her up in Brooklyn, and while she won’t be a bookkeeper immediately there either with time anything could happen.

Father Flood wrote a formal letter sponsoring Eilis and guaranteeing to take care of her accommodation as well as her general and financial welfare, and on headed notepaper came a letter from Bartocci & Company, Fulton Street, Brooklyn, offering her a permanent position in their main store at the same address and mentioning her bookkeeping skills and general experience. It was signed Laura Fortini; the handwriting, Eilis noted, was clear and beautiful, and even the notepaper itself, its light blue colour, the embossed drawing of a large building over the letterhead, seemed heavier, more expensive, more promising than anything of its kind she had seen before.

Eilis moves to Brooklyn. She stays in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house with other Irish girls and gets a job in local department store Bartocci & Company (again on the shop floor). She gets homesick, but gets over it and in time meets a local boy with whom she falls in love. As their romance develops problems back home in Ireland require her attention and that’s largely as much plot as I’ll summarise.

In terms of an individual life these are big events. Leaving Enniscorthy. Crossing the Atlantic third class in the bowels of a ship. Adapting to life in a new country. Meeting new and foreign people. Falling in love. This is what life is made of. Few of us bust crime cartels wide open, discover cures to rare diseases, race against time to save a city from disaster. Personal dramas tend to be small and private in nature and not the stuff of gripping fiction.

Tóibín then has written a novel in which things that would only really be exciting to those living them happen to a woman who though pleasant isn’t very interesting. Eilis admires her sister and respects and loves her mother. She gets along well enough with her housemates at Mrs. Kehoe’s and with the people at work. She doesn’t make waves and is happy to fit in with other’s plans.

Occasionally Eilis’s passivity backfires (there’s a tense changing room scene where it becomes apparent that the person helping her change has an interest that is more than professional in ensuring Eilis fits into a bathing costume she’s trying on). In the main though it’s not a problem because almost everyone she meets is decent and helpful.

Father Flood has no ulterior motive here. He’s just doing his best to help out someone he thought needed help. Mrs. Kehoe has her foibles, but she’s basically a good woman. Some of Eilis’s housemates are silly and some prudish but there’s little harm in them (little, but not none – I’ll come back to that). Even Eilis’s boyfriend is kind, patient and funny and wants mostly to make her happy.

Tóibín uses all this to examine the contrasts between life in rural Ireland and life in the US. Enniscorthy is small and gossipy where Brooklyn is large and anonymous. Propriety is important to people back home and there are rigid social codes and a clear heirarchy all of which seems missing in the US. When Bartocci & Company decides to allow “colored” shoppers through its doors though it becomes apparent that Brooklyn has its own heirarchies and codes which just weren’t as immediately apparent.

Brooklyn is a novel of emigration. On her way to Brooklyn Eilis stays briefly in England with one of her brothers. Her mother and sister haven’t laughed much at home since he left and it’s a joy to Eilis to see him. He has no plans to return home to a jobless Ireland but life in England isn’t easy either.

‘What are they like?’ she asked. ‘Who?’ ‘The English.’ ‘They’re fair, they’re decent,’ Jack said. ‘If you do your job, then they appreciate that. It’s all they care about, most of them. You get shouted at a bit on the street, but that’s just Saturday night. You pay no attention to it.’ ‘What do they shout?’ ‘Nothing for the ears of a nice girl going to America.’ ‘Tell me!’ ‘I certainly will not.’ ‘Bad words?’ ‘Yes, but you learn to pay no attention and we have our own pubs so anything that would happen would be just on the way home. The rule is never to shout back, pretend nothing is happening.’

In Brooklyn Mrs. Kehoe’s seems to be Enniscorthy in miniature. Father Flood’s church with its Christmas dinner for destitute Irish men is another export of home. The Irish in Brooklyn live with other Irish, look to the church for charity and succour, date and marry within their own community.

There’s a broader point being made here. The emigrant Irish try to recreate Ireland in their new home. They try in a sense not to be emigrants, which given how few of them seem to have wanted to leave isn’t really surprising. Despite their efforts though they’re not home any more. Mrs. Kehoe’s house and Father Flood’s church are surrounded by another world. The Irish keep to the Irish, but around them are the Blacks, the Jews, the Italians. All of them keep to a degree to themselves, but as they move past each other in the pot the edges of all of them are melting.

When Eilis has to return to Ireland on family business she’s become a different person. To the people she left behind she’s now glamorous and tanned. Her clothes are more fashionable and more expensive. She seems more confident, but how could she not? Emigration has changed her as it’s changed waves of emigrant Irish over generations.

This is a novel about the emigrant experience then, but it’s not just that and it’s not at all heavy handed in making its points. Tóibín has a marvellous knack for crafting dialogue and also a good eye for comedy. The scenes in the transatlantic crossing as Eilis and her bunkmate battle their neighbours for a shared bathroom are tremendous and the exchanges at Mrs. Kehoe’s dining table are vivid and neatly observed:

‘Where I’m from,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘we didn’t go out at all and none of us were any the worse for it.’ ‘And how did you meet fellows?’ Diana asked. ‘Will you look at her?’ Patty interjected. ‘She’s never met a fellow in her life.’ ‘Well, when I do,’ Miss McAdam said, ‘it will not be in a saloon bar.’

There are occasional dark undertones. I mentioned earlier that the women at Mrs. Kehoe’s weren’t entirely harmless. Nor is Eilis. The Irish community is supportive and helpful, but it’s also judgemental and snobbish and the treatment Eilis and the rest dish out to a new housemate who by their standards is of a lower class to them is ugly and petty. Eilis herself receives similar treatment from the woman who owns the shop she works in back in Enniscorthy. None of this is ultimately much more than harsh words and a bit of meanness. Like so much else here it’s significant to the person it happens to but not much more than that.

Brooklyn is a novel almost without conflict. The small rivalries in Enniscorthy and Mrs. Kehoe’s aren’t ones that are going to have any real impact on Eilis’s life. The challenges she faces are eminently surmountable. Eilis’s acceptance of what others do and plan for her means she meets little resistance along her way. All this should make it dull and I think for some readers it probably would be dull. Not for me though.

Tóibín takes an ordinary life facing ordinary issues and makes it real and compelling. It’s the prose which sells it. Brooklyn is just so well written that the lack of event was not only not a problem for me – it became a strength. What’s important at the individual level isn’t the sweep of history. That’s our backdrop. It’s those things which would interest nobody else that really matter.

Brooklyn. This has been heavily reviewed already of course. Here’s some takes on it by Kevinfromcanada, The Asylum, Themookseandthegripes and Hungry Like the Woolf. Kerry’s review at that last link knowingly contains spoilers on essentially the entire plot which allows Kerry to craft a very fine analysis of Eilis’s character – if you’ve already read the book or know you won’t it’s well worth reading. If you haven’t read it but might it’s probably best left for later. Trevor’s particularly good on a major theme of the book which I’ve not even touched on here – separation and distance.


Filed under Booker, Irish fiction, Tóibín, Colm