Review of Colm Toibin, Nora Webster
NORA Webster is Colm Toibin’s 10th novel in a distinguished body of work that includes journalism, plays, short stories, essays and poetry. For this, Toibin has received a Tony nomination, three Booker Prize shortlistings and the Irish PEN Award, among other accolades.
Set in a small Irish town in the 1960s, this new novel recounts Nora Webster’s struggle to “start a new life” with four children after the early death of Maurice, her jovial teacher husband. Conor, Nora’s youngest son, “wet[s] the bed most nights”; Donal, the next eldest, wakes “scream[ing] … loud and piercing” to night terrors; her daughters, Aine and Fiona, are at boarding school and college, grieving on their own.
Widowed in her mid-40s, Nora has to discover her identity outside marriage. An intelligent woman, she was prevented by poverty from finishing school and attending university. Instead, she worked for Gibney’s, the town’s mill-owners and wholesalers. She distinguished herself there until she left to marry Maurice. In marriage, Nora was free to “cultivate … [her intellect] with care”, to “take down a book and read … The day belonged to her.” But now, required to return to work, “her day was to be taken”.
Nora Webster is about transformation as much as grief; of Nora’s change from a woman who avoids well-wishers to one who pickets the local priest after an unfair decision, who goes back to work at Gibney’s and stands up for herself. Core to this is a discovery of her love of music, something she and Maurice “never shared”. Membership of the Gramophone Society and singing lessons lead “her towards a greater confidence as she allowed [her] voice to vibrate darkly on end notes”. This prompts a reawakening of sorts and painful regret for the life unlived: “she would give anything to be the young woman on the album sleeve, to be her now with a cello beside her”. Music becomes Nora’s “dream-life, a life she might have had if she had been born elsewhere … She wondered if she was alone in having nothing in between the dullness of her own days and the sheer brilliance of this imagined life.”
Toibin draws a complex character: prickly yet passive, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes selfish and cruel. The townsfolk like and respect Nora, but she wishes she had the courage to ignore them. On a family visit, Nora torments her sister, deciding that “Catherine could do all the cooking and cleaning and washing-up and leave her alone to read”. Nora loves her sons but “had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not”. Her cruelty towards a workmate in her teens is never reconciled: “Nora and Greta Wickham had decided to cycle to Ballyconnigar and … Francie Kavanagh had asked to come … they had ridden their bicycles fast to get ahead of her and then had gone to Morriscastle instead … they had almost laughed openly rather than apologised when they learned that Francie had got a puncture … and had got drenched in the rain that came after nightfall”. When, 21 years later, Nora finds herself working for a hostile Miss Kavanagh, she takes little responsibility.
Toibin’s excellent choice of a morally ambiguous female protagonist should be celebrated. In this golden age of television, where consumers of narrative are increasingly familiar with difficult men — Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano — there aren’t nearly enough female leads. But Toibin runs into difficulty with Nora. A reader doesn’t need to like a character or even identify with them. But empathy, engagement with the character’s fate regardless of moral quality, is necessary to sustain attention through the book. For much of Nora Webster, it is hard to empathise with the central character. The clearest route is through Nora’s loss of Maurice, but he doesn’t loom large in the way the recent dead may in a novel of grief.
A contributing issue is limited access to Nora’s internality. Her primary emotional state is disengagement: “It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air.” Mainly, this is portrayed through external action — avoiding people. But the reader is avoided too. “How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?” A legitimate question. But in fiction, an omniscient third person narrator can explain and should give more insight than “Nora felt herself becoming sad at the memory of that time.”
Empathy and internality are crucial when a plot focuses on the quotidian. Here, core dramatic action revolves around an invoicing dispute at Gibney’s. We learn the minutia of train journeys and buying umbrellas, DIY and Nora’s office administration: “some of the office staff were dealing with the farmers and charting the moisture in the wheat and working out the value of each consignment”. A certain dullness of routine is important to establish an intelligent character’s repression by small circumstances. But the reader concomitantly needs access to a vibrant inner life that rages against those surroundings, thereby elevating banality to tragedy.
For much of the novel, Nora’s disengagement does not achieve this. Yet in the last hundred pages, after Nora has discovered music, the book blooms into a vital and engaging work, a self-reflective study of her conflicted passion for the “groaning of the cello” and regrets at a life misspent. In these final chapters, Nora Webster comes into its own.