Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel is set in the 1960s and early 1970s in his native County Wexford where the seaside villages Ballyconniger, Blackwater, Curracloe and nearby towns of Enniscorthy and Bunclody are beautifully present on the page as the backdrop for an intensely focused study of character and grief. Wexford is famous for its international opera festival and music plays an important role in Nora Webster. Civil unrest in Northern Ireland and the political differences between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey will have particular resonance for Irish readers familiar with this period.
As always, Tóibín writes with tremendous authenticity about ordinary people and has the gift of making the ordinary seem profound.The novel opens with Tóibín’s heroine, Nora Webster struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Maurice, a well-regarded school teacher. Well-meaning neighbours from their small, tightly-knit community call to Nora’s house each evening to offer sympathy and share stories about Maurice. Nora realises that the past cannot be rescued from their memories and she faces the practical difficulties of trying to keep her home together while she finds a way to live without the anchor of her husband.
Nora longs for the questions and the sympathy to cease so that she will no longer have to respond to those who offer their sympathy looking into her eyes and waiting for her reaction.
So intense and personal is her grief, that Nora is emotionally neglectful of her children and surprisingly blind to their loss — particularly that of her sons Conor and Donal who are clearly struggling— and yet she is capable of tremendous understanding and empathy and fearlessly stands up for them when she is put to the test.
Tóibín shows empathy for his heroine but is also unsentimental. When she takes up singing — and in the process unlocks a gift she inherited from her late mother — Nora find a route to independence as well as a source of solace — not in the sympathies of friends and neighbours but in her own inner resources.
Character and place take precedence over plot in Nora Webster, a quiet, atmospheric novel that in my opinion represents Tóibín at his best.
[Disclosure: I received an Advance Review Copy of Nora Webster from the publisher via Netgalley]
See also Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin.