Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s seventh novel is set in the 1960s and early 1970s. The location will be familiar to Tóibín readers. It is his native County Wexford in seaside villages Ballyconniger, Blackwater, Curracloe and nearby towns of Enniscorthy and Bunclody. These places 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. References to 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. He 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. Well-meaning neighbours from their small, tightly-knit community offer sympathy. They call to her house each evening and to talk and share stories about her late husband. But Nora realises that the past cannot be rescued from their memories.
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. She finds it hard 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 Nora unlocks a gift she inherited from her late mother. Through her singing, she Nora she finds solace and a route to independence. So, her recovery comes not from the sympathies of friends and neighbours but from her inner resources.
Character and place take precedence over plot in Nora Webster. This is 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.