Nora Webster is too proud to hide from her neighbors, but she quickly wearies of people dropping by to tell her how sorry they are for her loss.
“They all said the same thing, but there was no formula for replying,” she thinks in Colm Toíbín’s exceptional new novel, Nora Webster. “There was something hungry in the way they held their hand or looked into her eyes. She wondered if she had done this to anybody, and thought that she had not. As she turned right towards Ballyconnigar she realized that she would feel much worse if people began to avoid her. It struck her that they probably were doing so, but she had not noticed.”
Toíbín, who has been named a finalist for the Man Booker Prize three times, has written from the perspective of everyone from author Henry James, in 2004’s “The Master”; to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 2012’s “The Testament of Mary”; to a young Irish immigrant starting a new life in 1950s New York in 2009’s “Brooklyn.”
His new novel also is about a woman starting over – in this case Nora, a 40-year-old mother of four in 1960s Ireland who is trying so hard to be strong for her children that she initially appears oblivious to the damage her sons suffered from their dad’s death. Donal, especially, has developed a stammer and cannot bear to sit every day in the classrooms where his father used to teach.
Nora’s schoolteacher husband has left no money, leaving her no choice but to sell the family’s summer cottage and take a job in an office run by a woman reminiscent of Dolores Umbridge – minus the love of kittens. (Nora and her friend were cruel once to Francie Kavanagh when they were girls, and she’s not the kind to let bygones be bygones. On the other hand, kindnesses Nora offered when she was younger also bear unexpected fruit.)
Enniscorthy being a small town, everyone knew Nora and Maurice, who was universally popular. Nora is a little tougher and a little more private, and a little tired of everyone knowing her business.
If she could just have her evenings to herself, she thinks, she could make a plan.
“She would learn how to spend these hours,” Nora promises herself. “In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.”
Toíbín shows both the care and claustrophobia of small town Ireland, where nothing escapes notice or comment – especially not a new haircut or a new dress. “It is a small town and it will guard you,” Sister Thomas, a nun everyone is afraid to say no to, tells Nora. Whether the town is watching out for her or not, Sister Thomas certainly is.
Nora is aware of the whisperings but still stands tall, even as her neighbors talk to her as if she were eight years old.
“Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.”
Toíbín writes with precision and delicacy as Nora forges a new path for herself, at the same time the Troubles in Northern Ireland are just beginning. This is a novel that pays attention to the small things.
While Nora is still trying to decide what she’s going to do with the rest of her life, she is clear on one thing: She’s not going to be one of those women, like her mother or one of her sisters, who are constantly puttering about the house.
“One of the things about Catherine was that she hardly ever sat down. Their mother, Nora remembered, was the same, always bustling about. Nora and Una called it ‘foostering.’ It was worse because their mother disapproved of women sitting down when there was still work to do.”
Over the course of the novel, Nora takes singing lessons, buys a gramophone, and paints a room in her house. In music, especially, she finds “a line towards brightness, or some beginning.”
In this quietly powerful story, that is more than enough.