Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Colm Toibin’

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin


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.

Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin


Do you ever go read something so good that when you attempt to write a review, you think to yourself, who am I to make comment on this author’s work? Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin falls into that category.

Each of the stories in this collection left me feeling completely sated. I found myself finishing each story and then putting the book down to do something else while I mulled over the story I had just read for a while.

The Age of Reason was my favourite story in the collection. The main character is a solitarily-natured criminal who master-minded the theft of a priceless Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ along with some other fine art.


The criminal uses his own brand of reasoning (threats and violence) to make other people behave as he wants them to, although he struggles to convince his own mother not to talk too much about his criminal activities. His character was formed by a stint in a Youth Detention Centre, where violence and erotica became entwined in his psyche, and by his alcoholic mother, who continues to use her son to protect her when her own behaviour isn’t acceptable. While the criminal doesn’t particularly value the stolen Rembrandt portrait as art, he believes that the woman in the painting looks as if she would be difficult to reason with.

A Song is a sad story about a young man who sings in a pub band, whose mother was a famous singer in the 1970’s. The young man hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 20 years, since he was nine years old, when he found himself in a pub where she was singing. They noticed each other and seemingly connected, although they did not speak to each other. The young man left after her song without learning if his mother recognised him or not.

The Name of the Game is another sad story. (Come to think of it, all of the stories in this collection are sad). A widow who found herself left with a failing family business and a hungry family built up the business with the intention of selling it for a better life someplace else, but her decision to sell disappointed her son who had expected to run the business himself someday.

In Famous Blue Raincoat, a teenage boy discovers a pile of old records, amongst them a record by a band which his mother and his dead aunt sang in, long before the boy was born. The band was always on the verge of enormous success, but they never quite made it. The son blindly transfers the records to CDs, telling his mother some of the songs were great and wanting to listen to them with her, without understanding that it breaks his mother’s heart to hear her dead sister’s voice again.

Who would want a Priest in the Family in this day and age? No, me neither, and this story goes exactly where you just thought it would.

The Journey tells of a woman collecting her depressed son from hospital and bringing him back to the family home to care for him. The woman’s husband is recovering from a stroke, and waiting for them at home. I felt depressed reading this story, on behalf of that poor woman.

Three Friends shows that life goes on for the living after a death. After Fergus’ mother dies, his friends come to her funeral and wake, and later collect him for a night out. They go to an all-night rave at an isolated beach, then swim in the morning. While they are swimming, Fergus and one of his friends, Mick, become filled with desire for each other, and the story finishes on the cusp of the two becoming lovers.

A Summer Job is the story of a grandmother who is desperately attached to her favourite grandson. Without going too much into the plot, this story has left me conflicted about the character’s motives, as I can’t decide if the grandson’s behaviour towards his grandmother or his mother stemmed from love or from a sense of duty.

I liked A Long Winter, the longest, and last story in this collection the least. An alcoholic mother disappears in the first snow of winter in the Pyrenees after a fight with her husband over her drinking. The son is grieving for his mother and missing his brother, who has gone to serve in the military for his two years of service. I wanted this story to have a definite end, and it didn’t.

Generally I prefer happier stories, but as I said earlier, who am I to quibble with someone who writes this well?






Brooklyn by Colm Toibin


Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is one of the loveliest books I’ve read this year. The story evoked a sense of nostalgia for Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s for me, even though I have never visited either place and wasn’t even born then. I’m blaming the emotions I felt on the writer’s skills.

The story follows Eilis, a young woman living with her widowed mother and glamourous older sister, Rose, in their family home in a small town in Ireland. Times are hard, and Eilis struggles to find anything other than part-time work. Her brothers have already left Ireland to find work in England. Eilis’ mother’s pension is supplemented by Rose’s income.

Rose arranges for an Irish priest to sponsor Eilis to go to America and work in a department store in Brooklyn. The priest also arranges for Eilis to live in a boarding house with a widowed landlady and a houseful of young female Irish boarders. Eilis is desperately homesick at first, but eventually settles into the routine of her work and life. Eventually Eilis starts studying to become a book-keeper and meets a young Italian man, Tony, at a dance.

The way the divide between the races, cultures and religions is portrayed in Brooklyn is interesting. It is an enormous change when the department store where Eilis works starts to stock items aimed at coloured women, and the only person Eilis meets who is not Catholic in the whole story is her teacher at her book-keeping course, who is Jewish. When Eilis starts going out with Tony, she doesn’t tell anyone he is Italian, as that would also be frowned on. This made me smile, as in my Australian family tree there were Irish-Italian marriages during the gold-rush times. Despite their language barriers and cultural differences, my ancestors had religion in common, which was enough to get their romances across the line.

Tony falls in love with Eilis and she is beginning to fall in love with him too, when she receives news from Ireland that means she has to go home to her family. At first Eilis only intends to stay for a short while, but she is soon drawn back into life in Ireland and becomes horribly conflicted over where she belongs. To say what she decides would spoil the story, but I felt very sorry for Eilis having to make such a decision.

I enjoyed Brooklyn enormously and intend to read more books by Colm Toibin.



Tag Cloud