Colm Toíbín’s latest novel, ‘Nora Webster’, is a gentle and understated novel about a woman in early middle age coming to terms with the unexpected death of her husband. The novel starts some weeks after the death of Maurice, when Nora is tiring of the regular stream of neighbours and acquaintances visiting to express their condolences. She wishes to be left to get on with the business of picking up her life again and caring for her children, yet we see here from the start that in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy, her future life and identity will play out very much within her community with all its expectations and limitations-and with its support.
Nora is faced with many new challenges: on a practical level she is concerned about money and is forced to sell the dearly beloved family holiday home by the sea at Cush. Her memories of happy family holidays there recur throughout the novel and contribute to the tone of poignancy and loss. Nora has to go back to work: this entails a change of identity as she has been a contented housewife and mother for the twenty odd years of her marriage and had some standing in the town as the wife of the much respected secondary school teacher Maurice Webster. On a practical level she has to endure bullying and humiliation at the hands of the tyrannical Miss Kavanagh, as well as worries concerning the after school care of her children. In the long term the experience of working helps her to structure her life-the beginnings of unionisation in the firm help her to gain confidence as well as giving us a fascinating insight into the workings of an Irish family firm in the mid 60s.
We see the effect of the loss on the children, particularly the two younger boys, Donal and Conor, to be profound, and yet Toíbín lets this come out bit by bit with a light touch: we learn that the two boys were dispatched to Aunt Josie’s when Nora was caring for Maurice in the last stages of his illness. Totally taken up with her husband she didn’t contact the boys and Josie gently informs Nora at the beginning of the novel how worried and fearful they became. When we meet them in the novel Donal has a stammer and Nora decides against taking him to a speech therapist and yet later deeply regrets this decision when she realises how distressed he is at the loss of his father. Toíbín depicts a woman struggling with her own grief, doing her best to do the right thing by her children and sometimes making decisions about them which she later regrets.
And yet Nora herself, despite her grief, does develop as an individual. She makes friends with the exuberant Phyllis, through whom she rediscovers her old love of music. She joins a musical appreciation society, despite this being a minority interest in the town and its members the butt of Maurice’s jokes in the past. She takes singing lessons and goes to Dublin to buy L.Ps. The solace and emotional impact of music for Nora is movingly narrated as is her awareness that music is taking her away from Maurice: this is not a pleasure which he shared and her rediscovery of it seems almost a betrayal and a movement away from him and their marriage.
Nora’s grief is evoked in small observations and insights like this, rather than in great outpourings of emotion. The restrained expression reflects the Ireland and indeed Great Britain of the mid 60s- this is a time before the hippy period and the greater expressiveness which that brought. The period is indicated further by the Troubles in the North, introduced first as a news item discussed almost as if happening elsewhere, until one member of the family becomes more involved. The range of interest and engagement with Irish politics at that time within a family in Ireland seems completely plausible and again, the light touch with which this background is painted does not take over from or detract from the main narrative- the two are beautifully balanced.
A further aspect of community life which hovers in the background is the Catholic church. Nora’s faith is unclear: at times she expresses bitterness at her husband’s suffering and early death and seems to derive little comfort from the promise of the afterlife, and yet she attends mass and conforms to the social rituals. Sister Thomas is presented as a caring presence and yet the Catholic brethren teachers seem a vindictive bunch. The thin veil between our world and that of the hereafter in the religious discourse dovetails and is echoed in Nora’s intense experience on the beach at Cush of feeling close to Maurice and this occurs again more dramatically and astonishingly in a scene towards the end of the novel which made me gasp.
I enjoyed the fact that the novel follows a conventional linear narrative structure- the story is narrated largely from Nora’s point of view, but the omniscient narrator is employed to shed a different light on Nora and events at times. So we are seeing and feeling with her and yet invited to reflect and comment on her choices, perceptions and decisions as well. And the way that Colm Toíbín gets under a woman’s skin is extraordinary. This is a beautiful and moving novel about loss and moving on from loss which I would recommend to any reader.