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Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of "Nora Webster" by Colm Tóibín

Yesterday I posted my review of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.  In the book, I noticed two references to a woman named Nora Webster.  There is mention made of Nora’s attending a funeral:  “But Nora Webster had come . . . with Michael who had taught the boys in school, and they were the nicest people in the whole town.”  And there’s a second connection between Eilis and Nora:  Eilis tells a friend, “’We used to stay here years ago for a week or two in the hut that Michael Webster and Nora bought.’”

These references caught my attention because I’d already read Tóibín’s most recent novel, entitled Nora Webster, which was released five years after Brooklyn.  It is a characteristic of Tóibín to mention a character in one novel and then have him/her reappear in another book. 

Here’s my review of Nora Webster which I read in September of 2014.  (The novel is on the 2016 Dublin Literary Award longlist.)

4 Stars
The eponymous protagonist of this book, set in southeastern Ireland, is a 40-year-old widow left with four children: “the problem for her was that she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live.” We see her over three years (1969 – 1972) as she grieves and rebuilds her life.

As the publisher’s description indicates, this novel is a character study. Nora emerges as a real person, both likeable and unlikeable at the same time. At times she seems very self-centered, critical of others, and even lazy, but at other times we can only admire her feistiness as she stands up to her boss and her elder son’s principal. Watching her find her voice (both literally and figuratively) and realize a sense of freedom is almost mesmerizing. Music makes her realize that she is not alone in suffering; a melody tells her that “someone had suffered, and moved away from suffering and then come back to it, let it linger and live within them” – a good description of her own journey.

This book also examines relationships. We see Nora’s relationship with her two sisters and her brother- and sister-in-law. It is, however, her relationship with her children, especially the two boys, which caught my attention and which I tried to understand. In many ways Nora is disconnected from her children. “She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions” so it is not surprising that she learns about their lives only when others visit and spend an evening with them: “By the time the evening was over Nora felt that she knew more details about the lives of her children than she had found out in months.” She seldom shows her emotions: “She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.” At times I could not help but feel that she should have pried some more and expressed her grief more openly. Some of her decisions regarding her sons are certainly questionable; for example, she left her sons with an aunt for two months when her husband was dying and never once visited them. She does nothing to address a stutter one of her sons develops. Nonetheless, what is most striking is how realistic her behaviour is; much of it stems from having been raised by an overbearing mother. And what parent does not make a mistake or “a series of misjudgments,” especially when under emotional duress.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town is conveyed very convincingly. Having grown up in a small town in the time period depicted, I could identify with Nora’s predicament. Everyone knows what is happening in her life, and people tend to be censorious. Her decisions are often parenthesized by her concern about what people will think; even the joy of purchasing a record player has to be weighed against the opinions of others. Of course, it is the people of this community who give her support in unexpected ways.

There are unanswered questions which I found somewhat annoying. Something seems to have happened when her sons stayed with Aunt Josie, but we are left to guess. Was it only her absence that affected her boys so much that even a visit from Aunt Josie leaves them uncomfortable? One of her sons mentions hating the Christian Brothers and I could only think of the child abuse charges against the Congregation. Who is “the other one” that Maurice mentions in his appearance? Why exactly are her sisters afraid of Nora?

I am amazed at Tóibín’s ability to depict the inner life of women. Though I was not as impressed as I was by his Mary in The Testament of Mary, this portrayal of an ordinary woman’s struggles with life’s vicissitudes is worth reading.