Nora Webster, a novel by Colm Toibin, follows the life of a recently widowed mother of four. Nora’s story, set in the small town of Wexford, Ireland, unfolds around her grieving the recent death of her husband, Maurice. Through this narrative, Toibin grants us insight into Nora’s relationships with her four children, her financial troubles tied to a fear of falling back into the life she knew before Maurice, and her struggle to reinvent herself at the age of forty.
The novel is most striking in its graceful narration of a seemingly ordinary life. Toibin uses simple, specific details to open up Nora’s story to readers in a compassionate and absorbing way. Toibin’s sparse language and clean, straightforward description seems to reflect the voice and interior monologue of the protagonist. The novel’s tone echoes the character’s guarded nature; very little is revealed, and yet we come to understand Nora’s inner life and respect her all the more through this.
Toibin’s persistent use of this pure language makes the moments of Nora’s emotional insights even more poignant. A scene that is particularly striking in Nora’s development occurs while she is listening to records at a friend’s home. Nora is touched by the music and concentrates hard on the sound. Describing the scene, Toibin writes, “As Dr. Radford put the record on, she thought how easy it might have been to have been someone else, that having the boys at home waiting for her, and the bed and the lamp beside her bed, and her work in the morning, were all a sort of accident. They were somehow less solid than the clear notes of the cello that came through the speakers.” Through these words and their melodic tempo, we see Nora’s consistent struggle to accept the facts of her life in the aftermath of tragedy and handle the responsibilities of her children and job, all while trying herself to be strong.
Not only does Toibin shed light onto a difficult grieving process with empathy and honesty, but he gives us clear insight into the small town culture of Ireland set against the larger cultural conflict of “The Troubles.” Without outright explanation and lengthy exposition, Toibin seamlessly navigates Nora’s own story alongside a very important cultural turning point in the history of modern Ireland. We recognize the stifling nature of the small town, and how it leaves Nora feeling exposed and fragile. She is unable to escape her grief, because she perceives Maurice’s death in the faces and words of each person she encounters. After running into an old neighbor while selling the family’s beach house, Nora notes the neighbor’s “hectoring tone”, a tone that “she had tried since the funeral to ignore…she had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.”
We also see Nora reacting to the unfolding violence of “The Troubles”. Nora wonders often to herself what Maurice, who had been involved in local politics, would have thought about the conflict. As the story progresses, however, Nora gently begins to move away from this seemingly reflexive thinking, and we see her growing independence in thought and action. Toibin describes her finding this independence, saying at one point, “At work, she looked forward to going home and spending time alone in the room she had decorated. She borrowed books from the library and, with the fire lit and the lamps all on in the evening, she read or left her mind empty.” In small, foundational ways, Nora begins to make her own decisions and become master of her own time, a nod to the independence Northern Ireland was also seeking at the time. When Nora eventually burns old boxes of letters from Maurice, Toibin writes “It was the way things were; it was the way things had worked out.” Nora ultimately finds acceptance, and with this acceptance, the pathway to a new life.
This novel impacted me from the very beginning, and I have continued to think back to it as I read other stories. What struck me most is the beauty imbued into a life that promises nothing extraordinary. Nowhere in its pages are we looking for or expecting super-stardom, striking drama or otherworldly events. The major crisis of the book, Maurice’s death, has already happened before the novel opens. And yet, I remained captivated and intrigued, with Nora taking on an almost mythic and mystical nature in my mind. To introduce a character so simply wrought, and yet so dynamically compelling to readers is a true literary feat, and has greatly enhanced my own understanding of literature and craft. Toibin masterfully brings us into the world of this tough, guarded character and along the line makes us fall in love with her and her story.