Novelists often cultivate stories from their own experience and pain. When Irish novelist Colm Tóibín began his beautiful new novel Nora Webster, he wrote from the perspective of his boyhood grief over losing his father, a teacher. But as he continued writing, he explains in an essay in The Guardian, he turned his gaze to his mother’s suffering.
So began the story of Nora Webster, a widow in her 40s with four children. Nora lives near Dublin in the small town of Enniscorthy, which is also Tóibín’s birthplace. The novel is set in the early ‘70s as Nora’s just lost her husband Maurice, a beloved teacher and her great love. She is an intelligent woman, and her comfortable life with Maurice was rich with politics and culture.
But now, as she adjusts to a stark life without her husband, her every step is scrutinized by family and friends, and she feels the eyes of the entire town upon her.
Her family includes two young sons and two teen-aged daughters. And before Maurice’s death, they owned a cottage on the Wexford coast where they spent summers swimming in the cold sea and rattling about the town. But Nora must sell the cottage to support her family. Like many of the decisions she makes on her own, she fails to calculate the effect on her children. Sometimes, she even neglects them as she struggles to gain her moorings.
Her son Donal develops a stammer and later struggles in school, though she mainly ignores it. Over the course of the book, her children grow distant and connect more with her sisters and brother and sister-in-law, all of whom step in to make sure the children are cared for and educated properly.
But Tóibín, whose novel The Testament of Mary was on the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist, writes from a stunning place of empathy for Nora. In her grief, Nora can be harsh, overindulgent, and self-centered. Yet, he renders her with deep tenderness and love; this is the reality of grieving, the fog of moving mechanically forward for the sake of your children, not thinking properly or even responsibly, just surviving a day at time. He eloquently captures the truth of her struggle to connect with her children’s pain and confusion in the face of her own. There is no roadmap or manual for widowhood, Tóibín seems to explain.
Tóibín also explores discrimination in a time and culture where a good marriage was a woman’s escape from menial employment. Nora returns to work and finds a bleak workplace where her skills are much needed but undercompensated. She makes a rushed decision to join a Union, not realizing the potential for backlash. But it’s one of several empowering moments for Nora, who strengthens over the several years’ span of the novel.
“But … it was the idea that she had asked no one’s advice. It was the first time since she had sold the house in Cush that such a chance had come so easily, and she was glad she had taken it. Perhaps it was not wise; perhaps it made more sense to be grateful to the Gibneys. But it pleased her now to be grateful to no one.”
Tóibín paints a brighter future for Nora’s daughters, Fiona and Aine. They get degrees and plan careers. And the family watches over them to ensure their success.
Religion, specifically the clash between Protestants and Catholics, is an important thread in this novel. Nora wrestles with her faith, and is influenced by a powerful nun. Also, the story plays against a backdrop of crisis in nearby Northern Ireland. Together, the family watches on TV as events lead up to Bloody Sunday, when British soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry. Off at college in Dublin, Aine is swept up in demonstrations and goes missing for several days.
The book draws to a dramatic close as Nora comes to terms with her ghosts. Nora Webster is a gorgeous, tender novel that proves the power of love and family when facing grief and a shattered soul.
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín