‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

Nora-Webster

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 385 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It will come as no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, would be right up my street.

I enjoyed his 1992 novel The Heather Blazing, when I read it more than 20 years ago, as well as more recent forays into his work, specifically The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn (both reviewed on this blog), and I have been saving up some of his others for “comfort reads” — because, to be frank, that’s how I view his writing: it’s often unbearably sad and melancholic but I find his lyrical style, its form and rhythm, quite comforting. And yet, when I read Nora Webster, I didn’t find it particularly comforting at all… I found it, well, let me be frank once again, kind of lacking. Let me explain.

A woman’s grief

The book, which is set in Ireland’s County Wexford (Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy to be precise) in the late 1960s and 1970s, is focused on one woman — the Nora Webster of the title — who has recently been widowed. Her husband, a school teacher who played an active role in local politics and was regarded as a pillar of the community, has died of some never-explained-to-the-reader illness and she is left to bring up four children alone: two of them — young adult daughters — no longer live at home, but there are two young boys under the age of 11 whom she treats in a distant but not unkind way.

Early on in the novel there are two pivotal moments: the first is the realisation that Nora is broke and must return to work, something she hasn’t done since becoming a mother; and the second is her inability to see the harm she might have caused her two boys when she placed them in the care of an aunt while her husband was ill in hospital — during that time she never once visited them or let them see their father.

Now, bereft and grieving, she realises she must get on with life without her husband by her side. Her return to part-time work is fraught with difficulties — mainly in the form of a bitchy boss, whose antics are so over-the-top as to be cartoonish — and she’s constantly worried about her eldest son who seems to have developed a stutter, but there is hope and redemption too, mainly in the form of music, when Nora rediscovers her ability to sing. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of last year’s Giller short-listed novel Tell by Frances Itani, in which music and song serves to sooth the loneliness of a woman grappling with the return of her husband crippled during the Great War.)

Character-driven narrative

There’s not much of a plot in this book — it basically follows Nora getting on with her new life as a widow and raising her two now-fatherless sons as best she can over the course of several years. It’s largely character driven. Typically, the characters — Nora, her children, her siblings and their families, her work colleagues, new friends and the local nuns — are beautifully drawn, and Tóibín builds up a realistic portrait of a close-knit community at a time when life (and gossip) was so much simpler than it is now.

Indeed, Toibin is at his best when he focuses on the minutiae of Nora’s daily life — the housework, her job, the care of her sons, her singing practice — and the sense of community that surrounds, and occasionally smothers, her: this is a woman who wants to grieve alone but Irish village life, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, refuses to let her do so.

It’s a slow, gentle read, and a moving portrait of one woman’s grief, but I kept wondering whether the narrative was going to build to any particular climax (it doesn’t). I felt as if the story was plodding along, going nowhere and I occasionally grew bored — I hate to say it, but even Tóibín’s lovely lyrical voice wasn’t enough to sustain me on the journey.

That said, I do need to issue two caveats. First, I read Nora Webster immediately in the wake of Mary Costello’s extraordinarily powerful debut novel, Academy Street, which meant it paled by comparison. And second, I did not realise the book was based on Tóibín’s own mother until I watched the BBC documentary Colm Toibin: His Mother’s Son just days after finishing it. I think having this knowledge in mind while reading the book would have certainly made me more sympathetic to the novel’s aims: to explore why Nora Webster — flawed and fragile — behaved in the ways she did during her husband’s illness and afterwards…

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29 thoughts on “‘Nora Webster’ by Colm Tóibín

  1. I loved this book precisely because it was such a character driven narrative. The kind of book where nothing happens except the everyday business of living. I did not know it was based on the life of his mother – that makes it even better for me now.

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    • I usually love those kinds of novels, too, but this one didn’t quite hit the spot for me — as I say I think it’s because I read it so soon after Academy Street, which is also a character-driven story about one woman’s life (from aged 7 to 60+), which unfolds slowly but with great emotion. Have you read that? I’m sure if you loved Nora Webster than this one would definitely appeal.

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  2. Interesting review, and it sounds as if Toibin might not have quite succeeded in his aim with the novel if it took a documentary about the story behind it to explain his intentions…. 🙂

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    • Well, I think it’s more the case that if you find out it’s a portrait of his mother it just resonates more… particularly when you realise one of the neglected little boys is him.

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  3. I read Nora Webster on Boxing Day, the one day of the year that I dedicate solely to reading. I am a big fan of Colm Tòibin, with Brooklyn being one of my favourite novels. I really enjoyed Nora Webster, the gradual awakening of Nora, her self disvovery. I agree that what you read before a novel influences what you think of the next one. I picked up The History of Loneliness after reading Nora but had to put it down again as it felt too similar. I haven’t got back to it yet?

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    • My opinion of books can be coloured by previous reads, which is why reading/reviewing is such a subjective activity. You can never take books on face value; there’s always more going on with the reader, their history, life experience, mood, personality, previous reads etc. interesting to hear you abandoned History of Loneliness soon after as I have it on my shelf but so far it hasn’t appealed. I will read it eventually but the mood will have to be right. I have so many Irish books here it’s ridiculous. I could probably devote an entire year to reading them and nothing else…

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      • I am a big fan of Irish fiction, too, largely due to reading books I have heard about from your blog. However, I find I like to space them out a bit, the Irish do tend to be melancholy!

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        • Haha, yes, it’s the melancholy aspect I like. The Australians do a nice line in melancholy, too, although that aspect is less apparent as Australia has become such a rich (and complacent) country. Australian novels are now obsesssed by class and escaping being ordinary.

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  4. Very sorry that you were left disappointed, Kim. Like you, I’ve been a Tòibin fan for many years but haven’t yet got around to this one. I did see the documentary last year and so I’m hoping it will prepare me. I wonder if the emotional connection coloured his writing.

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    • That’s the weird thing: I don’t think his emotional connection coloured his writing at all. It is distinctively his style — almost flat and emotionless — but the story arc is a bit wanting. I think that’s what disappointed me. However, all that said, it is a lovely read (he does a woman’s POV so well): I liked the book, but I didnt love it.

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  5. I’m fairly new to Toibin’s writing – I’ve only read The Testament of Mary which I really enjoyed. I’m keen to explore more of his writing though, and Nora Webster is on my to-read list, but maybe I’ll read another of his books first. Thanks for your review!

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    • That’s a nice reminder that I need to read the Testament of Mary. I was kind of put off reading it, because I’m not religious, but in the BBC documentary Toibin says he’s rejected Catholicism, so it made me more intrigued to read it.

      I’d recommend reading Brooklyn. It’s one of my favourite novels of recent years. It’s being made into a film, which worries and excites me in turn. Will they do the book justice or screw it up?! 😉

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  6. I bought this because I love Brooklyn so much but haven’t got to it yet. I’m interested in your comment that you think it paled next to Academy Street, which I loved, and reminded me of Brooklyn!

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  7. Pingback: 10 books on the International Dublin Literary Award longlist 2016 | Reading Matters

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