Thoughts on Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (by Jill)

Nora Webster coverI didn’t think I was going to finish Nora Webster today, but I am pleased to report that I did. I started the morning with forty percent still to go (I read it on my boss’s Kindle), and managed to not nap the day away like I did yesterday. The Venti iced coffee from Starbucks helped. A character-driven book like this was just what I needed after reading the plot-heavy Wayward Pines trilogy. Despite the sadness inherent in the story of a middle-aged woman mourning the death of her husband, I was able to find humor and hope in its pages as well.

The novel takes place in the late sixties/early seventies in a small town in Ireland. Nora’s husband Maurice has passed away from some long illness, and it sounds like his death is drawn out and painful for all concerned. They have four children: Fiona, Aine, Donal, and Conor. Fiona and Aine are both away at school but seem to come home often, and Nora is at home with the two boys. The entire novel is told from Nora’s perspective, and Nora is many things, but objective she is not. She imagines what everyone else is thinking, usually unfavorable things about her parenting, her job, or the manner in which she is mourning her husband, but never asks anyone their thoughts or opinions, and assumes that it isn’t her right to ask. She even thinks she should leave her kids alone, because when she was young her own mother butted in too much in her life and she hated it and assumes her kids will too. I get the feeling that her kids not only would like it, but that some of them actually need it.

The things that happen in this novel are just the little things that make up a life. Nora sells the family vacation home at the beach in Cush because she can’t bear to see it again after losing Maurice, as well as the fact that they have no income. She goes back to work at the place where she worked before she married twenty years ago and finds that a woman who worked there when she was there before is now the office manager and still holds some resentment towards Nora for something that happened when they were girls. The scene in which Nora finally stands up to this woman is awesome. The workers at Gibney’s decide to unionize. There’s a bunch of stuff going on in Northern Ireland that people talk about all the time. Nora takes her family on vacation but three of the four kids ditch out and go home. This vacation takes place during one of the moon landings, and Donal is practically obsessed with watching coverage on television and taking pictures with his camera. Tóibín inserts quite a bit of Irish history from this period, but only half tells things, assuming that his readers will be able to infer the rest because they actually lived through the events or learned about them in school/at home. And that’s okay, but I know that the author used these events to help place the Websters in a historical context, and I didn’t get that information because I lack knowledge about Irish history. Kind of a bummer, you know?

By the end of the novel, about three years have passed since Maurice Webster passed away, and Nora has been seeming to do okay: Donal has gone off to boarding school, paid for by Maurice’s sister, who is very close to the family; Fiona has finished school and moved home to work as a teacher; Nora has joined a music society in town, and she has been taking singing lessons. She even redecorates her sitting room. But you know what she hasn’t done? Gotten rid of Maurice’s clothes. By the end of the novel, Nora has developed horrible insomnia, probably from three years of repressing her grief. The good news is that her family finally realizes that she’s not doing as well as she has made it seem, and they force help upon her so strongly that she has to accept it. It’s actually a nice way for the story to end.

Tóibín is a writer who doesn’t come on very strong: he eases his readers into his world and then all of a sudden you are completely wrapped up in it and you have no idea how it happened. I remember the same thing happening when I read his Brooklyn a few years ago. I was just going along, and realized I’d been reading the book almost nonstop for several days. He just has that effect on me. Nora isn’t always a very likeable character, but she an actual person, and one I will remember for a long time. I couldn’t even remember Ethan Burke’s last name while I was actually reading the Wayward Pines books, much less in six months or ten years. I know I will remember Nora Webster for at least that long.

This entry was posted in Colm Toibin, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Thoughts on Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (by Jill)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    I have not read any Colm Tóibín. I tend to avoid many Irish writers who write about that time period because it was a very negative and bleak society. Now if you visit Ireland it is so different. People are throwing off the yoke of the church, there is tremendous diversity, a lot more opportunity, a tremendous amount of creativity. More international. I guess I should try one of his books.

    • badkitty1016 says:

      There’s actually a fair amount of music talk in Nora Webster, Maria. I thought of you while I was reading it, and thought you might enjoy those sections where Nora and her friends talk about music and singing and stuff. 🙂

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