Nora Webster is the second book I’ve read by Colm Toibin after being lucky enough to discover this author last year. I thought Brooklyn was a great book but Nora Webster even better. My rating system is going to need more stars…
The title character, Nora, is a grieving young widow who is mother to four children, two older girls who are away at school and two younger boys still at home. Nora lives in a small town in Ireland where her business is known by everyone. The amount of fear that Nora has about what other people will think of her is distressing, and simple, personal things like getting a haircut or buying a new coat is cause for concern for her that the people in her community might think less of her.
Nora has a large family who are mostly helpful and loving, although they can also be intrusive. Some relationships are difficult, just like in any family. The people who make up Nora’s community are mostly a blessing but sometimes a curse, as anybody who has lived in a small town will know.
Nora’s grief is almost overwhelming. Her husband, who died of cancer, was the love of her life and Nora doesn’t know how to make a life without him. She has moments of guilt when she realises she is free to make decisions without consulting anyone else or when she realises she can follow her own interests, such as her love of singing and listening to music, but she also struggles with practical decisions and worries about money. Nora is forced to return to a job which she was glad to have left when she married.
I don’t know if it is the grief or Nora’s own character, but she is an unusually detached mother. She doesn’t have open relationships with her children and avoids conversations which will remind the children of their shared grief. She is surprised to learn that the children open up to their aunts and uncles about their hopes and dreams, and their troubles. Nora avoids making decisions for her children, particularly for her sons, but is annoyed when other family members take charge. Despite the detached relationships there is a strong sense that both of her sons understand Nora and her solitary grief.
The story itself is gentle, despite being set in the late 1960s while ‘The Troubles’ in the background were absolutely ferocious. I don’t have a great deal of knowledge or understanding about Irish history and politics, but even the characters in this book are confused and anxious about their times, uncertain of how to make things in their country right. One character says of Northern Ireland, “That’s one scrap I wouldn’t like to be in. There will be no easy way out of that one.”
The language in this book is lovely. As I read I could hear the character’s voices saying their words and there is a strong sense of place and time. The story is about ordinary life and ordinary people, so I was surprised to find myself thinking about the characters and their lives for long after I had finished the book.
In a crossover between other novels, the mother from Brooklyn appears in Nora Webster, although each of these books stand alone.
Colm Toibin has written loads of other books and I am looking forward to them all.