Something 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.
The 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.
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.