Nora Webster by Colm Toibin


This is my fourth Colm Toibin and I found it to be yet another wonderful book. 

It is story of an Irish woman whose husband died while she had two young sons at home and two daughters old enough to be away at school. The most mundane aspects of her life are revealed with the same deliberate calm voice as the more dramatic moments as she comes to terms with the loss of her beloved husband. 

The story is set in Enniscorthy, as was a part of Brooklyn; early in Nora Webster there are references to the story of the characters Rose, Ellis and Jim. Brooklyn was set in the 1950s and with Nora Webster, we have moved ahead a decade or so. The first event that could be clearly dated was the landing on the moon of the astronauts, an event of great interest to Nora's older son Donal. They were on holiday in a caravan (trailer) they had rented, and Donal was captivated by this news story which he could only follow by watching the television at the nearby hotel. At the beginning of the book I assumed the lack of a telephone in this middle class home indicated an earlier time. Over the course of the three years a phone does not become an affordable item.

At the outset Nora's depression isolates her and she tries to shut out the world, complaining about those who seek to comfort her. Her wish to be left alone slowly dissolves as she finds the help she and her children need. She is invited to return to a job she had before she married Maurice; through her own strength and the intercession of others who care about her, she makes her way in the work world. She makes a connection with a woman who makes up the questions and is the master of ceremonies for quiz nights with teams from different little towns. Throughout the event, the woman is high-handed and feels superior to the participants, but after the quiz is over, everyone goes to the pub and the woman, along with everyone else, gets thoroughly drunk and much singing ensues. This leads to Nora's connections with people with an interest in music and she takes singing lessons from another wonderful character, a former nun who is an unconventional music teacher. She is sometimes able to help her children with their problems admirably, and sometimes she is flummoxed by them. 

The role of the extended family is realistic in that sometimes Maurice's brother and sister are supportive and say just the right thing and sometimes she feels they are intrusive with the care of her children. During a weekend visit with her sister she withdraws and finds her sister unpleasant. She resents her plainspoken and sometimes bossy Aunt Josie and yet goes to her when she is in crisis. 

The beginning seemed to move slowly as Nora's circumscribed life without her husband begins and the reader may feel overwhelmed by the dull details of her life. Ultimately she makes her way toward a full life and loving connections with family and friends. Along the way the picture of life in Ireland at the time is painted, including references to the beginnings of The Troubles. 

Colm Toibin, Nora Webster, Scribner, 2014, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). The book is available from the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.

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