Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

The Irish widow whose name comprises the title of this novel surges to life on these pages. As does Ireland itself. But the heart of this 2014 novel homes in on the mourning that Nora endures, following the death of her husband of 21 years from a heart attack. Even though she does not mention it, and neither does author Toibin, that mourning produces in Nora an emotional seclusion that is buried deep within her. It surfaces with such thoughts as: “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself.”

And so, we follow the widow Nora as she, first, pushes away any help from her own and her husband Maurice’s family. While her two older daughters, Fiona and Aine, are away at school, and so concern her less. In her own suffering, she is also blind to the mourning of her two young boys, Donal, who hides behind his photography, his stammer, and smart comments, and Conor, who hides intelligence inside his own innocence.

But there are those in town, and the perceptive reader, who recognize what she does not. That she is withdrawing from the world and hiding behind her own mourning. Whereas, she needs to turn back to the world. So people try to change her. Because they loved her dead husband Maurice, see the goodness inside Nora herself, or they value her reputation. One offers her a job, to supplement her pension. One asks her help to start a union in her company. One invites her into the public arena by filling a gap at a community function. One suggests she get away by joining her on a vacation to Spain. One suggests she join a choir to take advantage of the voice she has inherited. And as she does accept these invitations, albeit some with reservations, one does sense her cautiously re-opening herself to the world around her.

Moreover, as Nora gradually comes out of her defensive mode, she re-evaluates the needs of both her children and herself. She understands that an awareness of reality and a certain freedom will make her children stronger, and that she needs to think of her own needs as well, such as the pleasures of buying new clothes and enjoying music. And slowly, she learns to make such decisions, rather than wondering what Maurice might have wanted.

One wonders where this novel is going, once Nora seems to have recovered her bearings. But this is when the work becomes truly rich. For she has not fully recovered. There is more to be absorbed, and more withdrawal to be made from the past. She must ignore dreams of a past death, or any conversation with her dead husband. And she must renew the closeness with her three sisters that has not existed for a long while. Even an overheard conversation among those sisters—“She was a demon,” one says—opens to the reader the younger Nora, and deepens her portrait, revealing how her marriage to Maurice saved her from a life that was stifling her.

Nora’s final withdrawal from the past will be the symbolic burning of the letters her husband wrote before they were married. “She did not look at them. She knew them.” And: “they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back.” For some, this might be too obvious a symbol to appear on the final two pages of this novel. But for me the burning as well as the entire final wind-down to this novel is the perfect conclusion to this life whose story is concluding at one level and yet must continue on another.

For this novel is about life. Yes, about Nora’s life. But also about human existence. How each story within our own lives often does wind down quietly. And how any dramatic event would have spoiled this novel, spoiled its blend of uncertainty and confidence that characterized Nora’s life after her husband’s unexpected death. And Toibin does emphasize that uncertainty, for Maurice in his ghostly reappearance suggests, without detail, that something is going to happen to Conor; and then he also says, “The other one. There is one other.” And neither we nor Nora understands what he means. But it is a suggestion of the unknowableness, the uncertainty, of life itself.

In the background of this quiet story, anti-British violence flares in Ireland. It is the 1960s and 1970s. Much discussion of these events takes place, but the reason is not clear. It appears to be intended to offer a contrasting drama to heighten the quiet of Nora’s life, and perhaps, through the family discussions, to bring to life those people in her extended family. Even Nora’s visit to Dublin with Fiona in search of Aine, who is participating in an anti-British demonstration, is anti-climatic, for Nora trusts that Fiona will find her sister, and so the mother returns home.

Perhaps, as Jennifer Egan suggests in the New York Times, “each of these crises dissipates, as crises often do in real life…[and represents] Toibin’s resistance to an artificially dramatic arc.” She also adds: “The absence of melodrama…gives the illusion that Toibin’s carefully engineered novel is unfolding with the same erratic rhythms as actual life.” And that, indeed, is the path of Nora’s initial escape—into the details of her job, the details of her music training, and the details of family get-togethers.

It is such small decisions that Nora makes, along with her growing self-awareness, that help us identify with her suffering. As she realizes she will never have a musical career, she does enjoy the pleasures of music, even if it is “leading her away from Maurice…she was alone with herself in a place where he never would have followed her, even in death.” To step away from Maurice, and toward independence, she knows, will help save her.

As Nora slowly recognizes this need to break from the past, she becomes more alive. Living within herself was not enough for her, just as it was not enough for the reader. As an example, she begins repainting her home without thinking of what Maurice would want or say, or of the cost. And if the latter comes at a price, a few strained muscles, she learns that she cannot do everything herself. She must also rely on others.

To separate herself from the past, Nora finally donates the clothes of Maurice that she couldn’t let go. And then burns his letters. She also agrees to sing in a concert of religious music, a concert that memorializes a concert of forgiveness offered after World War II. It represents indirectly, I think, the peace Nora now feels, and perhaps starts her wondering if she can forgive God, the God Donal has just reminded her of, for the loss of her husband. It also reminds me to look for more of Colm Toibin’s fine work. (August, 2017)

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