Monday, May 4, 2015

Colm Tóibín gives us a deceptively simple but satisfying journey of growth in ‘Nora Webster’

Photo by Murdo Macleod

If you like loud, shoot-‘em-up books with lots of sex, violence and rock and roll, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is not for you.

As Heller McAlpin wrote on NPR books,

Colm Tóibín’s writing is the literary equivalent of slow cuisine – and I mean that as a compliment. In this age of fast everything, sensational effects and unremitting violence, he uses only the purest literary ingredients – including minutely focused character development and a keen sense of place – and simmers his quietly dramatic narratives over a low burner.

Only forty-six years old, Nora Webster is coping – not very successfully – with the sudden death of her husband, Maurice, a beloved local teacher. She is left with two daughters away at school, two adolescent sons still at home, and very little money. Set in Enniscorthy, Ireland, Tóibín’s own home town, the book has autobiographical elements. It is, he has said, “the story he has been circling his whole career – the plainest telling of what happened to him and his family after his father died while he was still a boy.” (The Daily Beast, Books, 11/3/14).

Nora’s gradual path from grief to a kind of quiet contentment is inspired by that of the author’s own mother. Tóibín’s stand-in is Nora’s son,
Donal, who becomes withdrawn and develops a severe stutter after his father’s death.

The language of the novel is deceptively simple as the story moves, step by step, at its own pace, detailing events chronologically.

Tóibín’s style is distinctive, though it’s the opposite of what is usually called “style” – there is no exhibition of cleverness, or highly ornamented manner, or any figurative or strenuously descriptive language .…This writer’s withholding – of commentary, of explication, of any verdict, on the life he renders – is so striking that it’s almost an inverted extravagance in itself. And the withholding is as intrinsic to the whole feel of the novel as the quality of light is intrinsic to a painting; it’s also part of the novel’s mimetic truth to life.” (Tessa Hadley, The Guardian, 10/11/14)

In her review in The New York Times (10/2/14), Jennifer Egan complains that the book has “made a fool of her.” Egan says she has been telling aspiring writers for years that they should “assail a character’s privacy from every possible angle, revealing to the reader that person’s impulses, wishes, personal history, habits of mind.” But Nora Webster does nothing of the sort:

The story of a middle-aged widow struggling to remake her life after the premature death of her husband, it is written without a single physical description of its characters or adverbial signpost to guide our interpretation of their speech. The emotional distance between protagonist and reader is so great that at times the title character seems almost spectral. Yet it is precisely Tóibín’s radical restraint that elevates what might have been a familiar tale of grief and survival into a realm of heightened inquiry. The result is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical.

Nora, we learn, had to leave school at fifteen to help support her own widowed mother. She had taken a job as a bookkeeper in the office of a local flour mill, a job she hated, and from which Maurice rescued her through marriage. Her life as a wife and mother was “one of ease with duty,” but now she is forced to return to work at that same office. “Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was simple as that.”

She chaffs under the constant verbal assaults of the office manager, a harridan with a decades-old grudge against her. She resents the help (which she sees as interference) which her sisters, the wife of the flour mill’s owner, and an aging nun foist upon her. But, slowly, she begins to form new friendships and, somewhat to her own astonishment, begins to take voice lessons. Her mother, with whom she did not get along, had been a locally-admired soprano and Nora herself once sang. She is now able to find solace in music. This leads to her first serious purchase, made solely for her own pleasure: a phonograph machine and a collection of records. And that, in turn, leads to her redecorating her “back room” to her own tastes, creating a kind of haven for herself.

Several critics have focused on her relationship with her children and what they see as her detachment from their grief. There is some truth to that. Even when she sees their suffering, she is unsure what to say to them: “Saying nothing was simpler, at least for the moment.” By the end of the book, however, the children have also begun to find their footing. The oldest daughter is a teacher, the other daughter has become an activist in causes that were dear to her father as well. Nora has found a way to talk to Donal who has moved to a new school where he seems to be settling in. Her very observant son Conor, still at home, appears to have a quiet but more comfortable relationship with her.

Three years after his death, Nora’s sisters remove all of Maurice’s clothes from the house as Nora has been unable to do it herself. In the bottom of the wardrobe, they find the box in which Nora has saved all the letters Maurice wrote to her before they were married. In the last deeply affecting scene, Nora is alone with the letters:

She did not have to look at them; she knew them….

She knelt down and slowly fed the letters into the fire. She thought about how much had happened since they were written and how much they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back. It was the way things were; it was the way things had worked out.

Photo by Eamonn McCabe
Colm Tóibín has written six other novels: ‘The South’ was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus First Fiction Award; ‘Heather Blazing’ won the Encore Award; ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize and the Booker Prize; ‘The Master’ won the Dublin IMPAC Prize, the Prix du Melilleur Livre and was shortlisted for the Booker; ‘Brooklyn’ won the Costa Novel of the Year and ‘The Testament of Mary’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His short story collections are ‘Mothers and Sons,’ winner of the Edge Hill Prize and ‘The Empty Family.’ He is currently Mellon Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.


  1. ‘Nora Webster’ is arguably Colm Toibin’s best

  2. Let me know what you think about this one, too, please.