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‘Nora Webster’ is arguably Colm Toibin’s best

Nora Webster

By Colm Tóibín


384 pages, $27

By Michael Langan


“Nora Webster” is a novel about loss. It describes what a young Irish widow, Nora Webster, does and doesn’t do when she is blind-sided by the death of her husband, Maurice. Nora’s daily routine, living in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, in the 1960s, is perfunctory but somehow, piercingly so in its ordinariness. “Nora” is Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel and arguably his best.

The novel is about listening, as much for what’s unsaid as said. Its arc of experience, from family happiness to death’s premonition to its fact, to mourning, to carrying on, is achingly real for anyone who has experienced a loved one’s passing, and for others whose souls are sensitive to such pain. Tóibín’s diction throughout is matter-of-fact.

The novel begins with Nora’s husband, Maurice, a schoolteacher, dying at a young age, mid-40s. Even so, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. As Maurice fails further, Nora attends to him in the hospital and at home. During this time she sends two young sons, Donal and Conor, to live with their Aunt Josie, a retired teacher, who has plenty of room at her place just outside town.

The boys’ behavior alters noticeably while they are with Josie. Something happens at Josie’s during those months that changes them. Donal comes back with a terrible stammer and Conor wets the bed most nights.

Nora decides to ask Josie what had occurred that altered the boys so. “I suppose it was they noticed the silence,” Josie remarks when Nora visits her later. Nora’s aunt chides her for never calling the boys on the phone to see how they were. The boys’ change of behavior while Nora attended Maurice was the reason for their problems, Josie implied.

To her aunt’s criticism, “no choice” murmurs Nora in reply. Maurice had to come first.

As a reader, this seems off the mark to me. If Nora loves the boys so much, why not squeeze a bit of time for a phone call to them?

After Maurice’s death, Nora is worn out with well-wishers, who soon disappear. Her two older girls, Fiona and Aine, go back to schools out of town after the funeral.

It is at this point that Nora attempts an explanation of “what comes next” in the lives of her two sons. The implications of their father’s death loom large for them, as they wonder about their futures. Tóibín sets the scene for what may be more familial misadventure with this description:

Later, conversation for Nora becomes “a way of managing things.” When her sister and brother-in-law, Margaret and Jim, visit, she could easily talk, because “… while they did not refer to those days in the hospital, what they went through then underlay every word they said. It was there with them in the same way as the air was in the room, it was so present that no one ever commented on it.”

Nora wonders if she’ll ever have a normal conversation again. She wishes that she could stop brooding and think of other things.

While Nora’s at work, Donal and Conor, alone from school hours, begin daily quarreling. Nora wonders what she can do. It isn’t natural for them to be in the house by themselves at their age, yet she has no other choice. And there is the house itself, “strangely filled with absence” and a silence that hovers between her and life. Tóibín adverts from time to time about external events that intrude upon Nora’s life: the police captured on television in baton charges against Catholics marching for civil rights in Derry, for example. “Is this a film?” Conor asks. “No, it’s the news. It’s Derry,” Nora answers. LNora strives for a balance in life, but it doesn’t come easily. She sees an old friend, Sister Thomas, as she wanders the strand near the family’s old summer cottage. Nora’s been walking along the shore, hoping to commune with the spirit of her husband. Sister Thomas advises her, “Go home … and stop grieving, Nora. The time for that is over. Do you hear me?” She adds that “We walk among them sometimes, the ones who have left us. They are filled with something that none of us knows yet. It is a mystery ….”

Nora takes her meaning. She makes the effort to be more engaged with life.

Next, Nora works with Phyllis Langdon, an acquaintance, in keeping score of an Irish “It’s Academic” game for two different communities. She takes a drink, babycham, a champagne-like drink made of pears, at a pub after the program. Nora takes up singing again, something she hasn’t done since before her marriage. She attends meetings of the Gramophone Society in Murphy Floods Hotel, in town.

All these are signs of re-engagement, and she becomes a tough number when her children are threatened.

This isn’t Colm Tóibín’s first attempt at personifying the importance of behavior in what the Irish call “the home place.” Five years ago, Toibin’s “Brooklyn,” a novel of Irish small city life and its extension to America, was a brilliantly imagined story of a young woman, Eilis Lacey, also from Enniscorthy, County Wexford (the author’s hometown).

In a sense, both of these novels capture what Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, remarks upon in his new book, “Off The Map.” He writes, “Place is the fabric of our lives; memory and identity are stitched through it. Without having somewhere of one’s own, a place that is home, freedom is an empty word.” Sometimes, the freedom that comes from the home place enables the individual to reject its small designs, as Nora Webster demonstrates.There is a frugality to Tóibín’s writing that reminds me of William Trevor, the masterly older Irish writer. Both are close observers of nothing much going on, told with nuance and deep understanding of the turbulences that course just below the surface of what passes for life.

Through it all, “Nora Webster” is a story of a woman acting out her freedom with a brilliant, solo verve – in a world where others might have swerved – to reject rather than to accommodate glacial Irish attitudes about women still frozen in the 1970s.

Michael D. Langan frequently reviewes Irish literature for The News.