Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterSomething about the promise of Colm Tóibín’s new novel Nora Webster pulled me in right from the beginning, the cover with its familiar Irish landscape of boats moored against a grey sky, the less conspicuous protagonist, a 40-year-old housewife who doesn’t become the mother of a prophet, an oversensitive woman who rarely gives voice to the many thoughts that race through her mind as she tries to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death and the shift in relations with her four children.

We know little of her life with her husband Maurice, she doesn’t wallow in pity, though we know she neglected all else, including visiting her sons who were living with her Aunt, one of whom develops a stutter as a result, during those last months when he was dying.

“In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.”

Nora Webster is a complex character whom few on the outside really understand, including her siblings, who despite their sister’s loss, well, according to Nora – seem to want to avoid her. Even when invited, she senses they wish her gone so they can talk about her. She behaves in a way to provoke them, ensuring they will have something to talk about, deliberately avoiding helping out, resolving not to do any washing up or to help in the kitchen.

“She wondered if she would ever be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.”

Set in a small town outside Dublin, in 1960’s Ireland, the novel charts a short period of time after her husband’s death in which Nora makes some important decisions such as selling the beach house and going back to work. She gets her hair dyed and joins the Gramophone Society. She takes singing lessons and following the advice of her Aunt puts her son into boarding school. She begins to create a life that would have been unimaginable in the past and becomes a woman she is comfortable with but surprised by, almost in spite of herself.

Colm Tóibín uses a particular narrative device that has a significant effect on how we see things. By writing in the third person limited perspective, we only ever see things from Nora’s point of view, there is little opportunity to see events in any other way, with the exception of the occasional insightful dialogue. This is the only time we hear what people have to say about Nora.

POVThe narrative perspective creates a narrow, introspective insight into her thinking, but also raises doubts as to whether what she thinks actually reflects reality, as she so rarely expresses her questioning thoughts and prefers to let them lie unstated, preferring to deal with the consequence of her silence. It made me want to shout  “Speak your mind Nora!”

She visits her sister who doesn’t offer them food after a long journey, Nora knows the boys are hungry and wonders if her sister believes they had already eaten, but says nothing.

“What was strange, she noticed, was that Catherine did not give her any opportunity to mention food; instead she spoke to her as though she were not really there. Once she noticed this, she found that she could notice nothing else….she had created an atmosphere in which Nora could have nothing to say.”

Nora has such powerful equanimity, that she rarely speaks, it is as if she lives continuously outside herself, observing herself and others in the situation and wondering many things that she will never utter. It is part of her character, accentuated by grief. To the point that when she does act and we see what she is capable of, it is a shock, it seems out of character. She is quite a force after all.

“She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions. If she came home with a parcel of any kind when she was growing up, her mother would need to know what was in the parcel, or if a letter came for her, her mother would need to know who it was from and what news it contained. Nora had found this constantly irritating, and tried with her own children not to intrude.”

Nora Webster is a perplexing character and Colm Tóibín a masterful creator of character, deliberately using a narrative device that prevents the reader from feeling comfortable with her observation of reality, while forcing us to accept it. We too are trapped inside Nora’s mind, just as she is trapped inside her grief. We feel the need to escape, to shout, to ask someone what is really happening here.

“They did not have her way of watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been.”

I found the novel a compelling, albeit at times annoying read. I turned the pages hungry for more and found myself resenting the authorial control over the narrative perspective. I wanted to read a companion novel, the one written from the point of view of her son Donal or her daughter Fiona, I didn’t trust Nora Webster’s interpretation of people’s motives and although she knew people gossiped behind her back, I really wanted to know what it was they were saying and not just her wild, over analytic guess at what was passing through the minds of members of her family and community.

042512_1611_IntheSpring1.jpgNora’s grief is unique in that she very rarely dwells on the past and we aren’t sure whether the way she is now, is how she always was or how much of it is the result of her grieving.

One of the best novels I have read portraying a widow’s grief was Susan Hill’s astonishing, In the Springtime of the Year, which I highly recommend, her protagonist is equally displaced by grief and experiencing an existential crisis provoked by the untimely death of her young husband.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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35 thoughts on “Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

  1. Hi Claire,
    My mother was widowed in 1965 with seven children, and it was fascinating to watch how she grew as a person, while employing various methods of coping with the chaos in the aftermath of my father’s death. Your description of this book sounds intriguing, and it also sounds like it rings true. I look forward to reading it.

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  2. Your description and summary of CT’s book rings very true to what I remember of growing up in 1960’s Ireland. No one talked about feelings back then, to such an extent that we hardly recognised that we had any! Overwhelming emotion was to be stifled, buried under bed covers, got over as quickly as possible. So yes Nora Webster could have been any of a number of our neighbours! I know I ‘should’ read it, but I’m not quite ready to dip back into those memories – almost half a century later and they’re still too close for comfort! 🙂 Now Susan Hill’s book, on the other hand, I shall probably rush out to read! 🙂

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    • Wow, thank you for the insight Edith, I thought Nora had an extreme case of silence, even within the walls of her own home and the author really made us feel what it was like through his use of the third person limited view. It is interesting for a lesson inthe consequences of choosing a certain point of view, but stifling – my word, it makes hard reading in the 21st century, especially as we see the damage and consequences it has on the children especially.

      I am so glad you are going to have a look at Susan Hill, I think she is an amazing writer and achieves so much in so few words, the mistress of the novella.

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      • ‘Stifling’ is a pretty word perfect description of what the emotional landscape felt like back then. There’s a whole lot I don’t like about the ‘new’ Ireland we live in now, but I’m grateful that, for the most part, we’ve left those dark days behind!

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    • I think that makes an interesting discussion point, there were a few things in the beginning which I wondered to myself if they were aspects of character or a consequence of a male author.

      For all her sensitivity, Nora appears to have completely neglected her children in the last few months of her husbands death and I couldn’t understand why that was necessary. By not revealing much of the depth of her relationship with her husband, he is revealed through the things others say about what a great chap he was. Even if he desperately needed her at his side, it seemed bizarre that she would sacrifice the need of her children, its hard to ignore the mother instinct. I’d be interested in others view on this, maybe she lacked it completely in her lack of action. I shall have to read a few more reviews.

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      • The decision that her husband needed her at his side would have been based upon his need for physical care; possibly also a recognition that he was dying which likely would be interpreted within a religiously turned sense of duty, that is, the importance of looking after those who were passing over to ‘the other side’. It is unlikely that Nora chose to attend to her husband’s needs because of his emotional attachment to her; other reasons would have taken precedence. And the children would have been expected to simply do what they were told. Of course, my opinion here is based upon experience of living through these times, not on my reading of the book! Maybe I’d better shut up now and just read it!! 🙂

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      • Thank you so much for your contribution Edith, it’s really interesting and your comments make sense as Nora certainly doesn’t suffer any kind of love sickness, a sense of wifely duty or religious appropriateness could explain it. I do think you ought to read it, its such an interesting discussion and there’s so much more to ponder than what is revealed in the book, because of course, we are stuck inside Nora’s head and she doesn’t really question why!

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  3. Great review as ever, Claire. It’s interesting to read Edith’s comments as they chime with my own experience. My mother grew up in Cork and moved to England in the early 1960s when she married my father. My mother’s side of the family never talked about their feelings, and when my father died suddenly in 1975 everything was bottled up.

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    • I am amazed by the number of people who have made similar comments Jacqui and find it astounding that Colm Toibin manages to get inside the mind of Nora Webster and create a character that so many recognise. Definitely a case of getting so much more out of the book for having discussed it and sought feedback.

      Ficiton Fan’s review is enlightening too (see the link below), she recognises her mother in Nora Webster and saw the book almost as part of a trilogy of women lives, (mentioning his earlier books The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn) which show the changes in Irish society across the generations.

      It must be so hard to not know what people felt, it reminds me of the many people who say the same thing about men who came back from the war, who also never revealed anything, but lived with the terror of what they experienced. A woman’s grief was probably seen as a setback she should just keep a stiff upper lip about and get on with her duty.

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      • Absolutely. It’s fascinating to read the comments. I think you’re right; a widow, especially if she was a mother, was expected to be terribly stoical about it all, and to get on with life for the sake of the children. If only treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy had been around (or more readily available) in those days, things might have been very different for my mother and others in her position. That’s a great point about soldiers returning from the war with PTSD. I’ve just read All Quiet on the Western Front for book group, and it taps into these feelings.

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  4. I am desperate to read this . Big fan of Toibin’s writing ….he is so empathetic to his female characters. I have nearly bought it a couple of times recently then restrained myself ….I will wait until pbk comes out !

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    • Love that restraint! Yes, it’s one to have on the shelf and I can’t wait for you and others to read it, the experiences people are sharing and the conversations I have already had are so illuminating. I shall have to convince Edith to read it too as I am sure all her insights are valid.

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      • Hee hee 🙂 Ok promise I will, but only when it comes out in paperback!! Have just ordered Marilynne Robinson’s new novel ‘Lila’ in hardback – just couldn’t wait for it in pb!!!

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  5. Straight away I wasn’t grabbed by the book, which had nothing to do with your wonderful words I hasten to add, but as you reminded me of Susan Hill’s moving work that brings back a whole host of memories I am curious to pick up Nora Webster now.

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    • If you read Fiction Fan’s review, she suggests this book is almost as if it is part of a trilogy, with Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship making up the other two, all of them reflecting how life affected women in each era. You might have to add that one to the list too 🙂

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  6. OK you’ve convinced me! I’ll try and pick a copy up soon and get back to you about my reactions to it. It’s high time I read one of his books anyway! 🙂

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  7. I’ve just read this one too. I don’t normally read reviews before I write mine, but I adored this story so much, I couldn’t resist when I saw this pop up on twitter.

    We are not Irish, but Nora’s limited emotional reactions reminded me so much of my mother and both my grandmother’s, that I found it quite disturbing at times.

    I’d love to reread it already – to tease out the ‘moral ambiguities’ hinted at on the back cover.

    I suspect this book will haunt me for quite some time.

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  8. Great review! it’s interesting how differently we saw it, although we both appreciated it. I suspect it might be to do with culture and age – I feel I know Nora absolutely because she is basically my mother. Silent, never discussing feelings but underneath it strong and stubborn and determined. The picture of how she went quietly through her grief and realigned herself in the world is a story I observed in my own life watching my mother learn to live as a widow at almost the same period of time as Nora, and going through the same gradual opening up to the world. That’s why I found the book so moving – I recognised Nora at every step of the way…

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    • I really enjoyed your review and would recommend anyone reading this to visit your blog and read it, just as the many comments here have enlightened me to an experience that so many can relate to.

      I am totally fascinated by that, I think perhaps my mother had something of that kind of experience, but I didn’t grow up in any kind of community like that, so it seemed alien and oppressive, perhaps we had access to her mind and thoughts, whereas most who recognise her behaviour wouldn’t have known what was going on in the mind of the character.

      Your review and the comments here add so much more to the reading experience, making me almost want to reread it, knowing a little more of the societal context within which she lived.

      Thank you so much for commenting.

      Read Fiction Fan’s Excellent Review of Nora Webster here.

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      • Thanks, Claire! Both for the words and the link. 🙂

        I agree – I love reading other people’s reviews of books I’ve read to see if they got something different out of it than I did. I spotted your review last night but had to wait to read it till after I’d finished writing my own because I find other people’s views start blurring my own. I’ve often wondered with Toibin if he would have the same impact on people who don’t have direct experience of the kind of society he’s writing about, so it was particularly interesting to see what you thought. And I definitely think his work stands up to re-reading… if only I could ever find the time.

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  9. I happen to be reading ‘A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing,’ a book by another Irish writer who lets an unusual perspective carry the narrative forward. It’s a painful story, brilliantly rendered, and also from a very interior place. Your thoughts on Toibin’s use of third person limited have me especially curious about the book — even if I risk feeling some of the same frustrations re: authorial control.

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  11. My only experience with C. Toibin was Testament of Mary. Prasied by many, I found it to be a ‘gimmicky’ version of a part of bibie story/heresay information heard or received from another. Toibin did not win the Booker for ToM. Nora Webster by reading your thoughts about it sounds like something I would enjoy. The silences of a character can be more resounding than speech. Wonderful review, analysis ….

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    • I’ve read three other books by Toibin and liked them all, but didn’t pick up ToM. He is a very skilled writer and worth reading to observe how he achieves certain effects, but also a quiet writer where most of the drama is on the inside of the character and not in the events that might take place. And clearly, as the comments attest, he has an aptitude for portraying Irish characters that anyone with a connection to people from those parts instantly recognises.

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