Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island; 507 pages; 2021.
Nora, by Nuala O’Connor*, is a bold and bawdy fictionalised account of the life of Nora Barnacle, who was James Joyce’s muse, partner and inspiration for Molly Bloom in his acclaimed novel Ulysses.
A love story
At its most basic level, it’s a love story between two people who flee the religious constrictions of Ireland for a new life, relatively free of judgment and prying eyes, in mainland Europe. But that life, a self-imposed exile, is peripatetic and impoverished, and Jim (as Nora calls him) has ongoing health issues, including glaucoma, nerves and a problem with alcohol that provides additional challenges.
Using key points in the historical record, O’Connor charts the couple’s relationship from 1904 — when they had their first sexual encounter in Dublin — to Jim’s death in Zurich, in 1941, following surgery for a perforated duodenal ulcer. A final chapter describes Nora’s life as a widow until her own death (from kidney failure) in 1951. According to the author, “some small facts have been altered or amended for dramatic purposes” but it’s largely faithful to the couple’s shared and complex history.
That history includes the birth of two children — a son, Giorgio, and a daughter, Lucia — in quick succession. (Lucia, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young woman, causes a rift in their relationship because Nora believed her daughter needed to be hospitalised but Jim thought it was unnecessary.)
It also consists of wider family dramas, other romantic liaisons and friendships with the likes of Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim and Sylvia Beach.
A supportive wife
And underpinning it all is Nora’s undying support of her husband’s career despite the fact it doesn’t always make her, or her children, happy.
‘You’re a beautiful writer, Jim,’ I say. And he is, though truly some of his stories baffle me as much as the Moore fellow’s ones. But, it seems, some of my own stories live within Jim’s writing. It’s a queer feeling, but is he not entitled to take parts of me and mould them for his good use? Especially if it will get him a book published and move us along in this life.
There’s no doubt that the pair’s life together is an extraordinary adventure, full of ups and downs and incredibly testing times, but the strength of their love for one another gets them through.
It’s quite bawdy and sexually explicit in places, and when this period of their life wanes, as it inevitably does in most long-term relationships, Nora becomes annoyed by his inability to commit himself to her in any legal way (the pair don’t get married until 1931 after 27 years together) and what she believes is his immature ways:
Jim Joyce is my love, but he’s also a bother to my heart and a sore conundrum to my mind. I don’t think the day will come when he’ll grow to be the man he should be.
Intimate first-person tale
The novel is incredibly detailed and written in an intimate first-person voice from Nora’s perspective, but at more than 500 pages it’s long, perhaps overly so, but it does reward the patient reader.
It’s vivid and bold, sensuous and ribald, and gives voice to a woman who lived her life in the shadow of a man who was fiercely ambitious but also hungry for attention and being the life of the party.
Yes, the other wives and the literary women, who so love to scurry around the great James Joyce, find me a vast disappointment. But, hand on heart, I don’t give a sailor’s snot what they think. Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re strong as steel together.
Nora has been shortlisted for this year’s Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and having read all the books on the shortlist now, I will nail my flag to the mast and declare that I think it deserves to be named the winner!
This is my 4th book for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I am trying to read the entire shortlist before the winner is announced on 1st June.
* Nuala O’Connor also writes under her Irish name, Nuala Ní Chonchúir’. I’ve read several of her books, all reviewed here.