“We walk among them sometimes, the ones who have left us. They are filled with something that none of us knows yet. It is a mystery.”
I already knew I really wanted to read Nora Webster even before I was fortunate enough to win a signed edition of it on Twitter – when I managed to persuade my second small book group to read it in December I was delighted and stopped reading reviews so that I didn’t spoil it for myself. By then of course so much had already been written about this novel – that it becomes difficult to add to it, I’m not sure I can, I can only talk about my experience of it. I have actually only ever read two Colm Tóibín novels before one was Testament of Mary two years ago, – and the other I can remember nothing about – it was very very pre-blog, I suspect it may have been The Heather Blazing. There is often a gorgeous lyricism to Irish writing (I know one shouldn’t generalise but…) that when I read it I wonder why I don’t read far more Irish fiction. Certainly I found myself wondering why I hadn’t read more by Tóibín.
“In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.”
Enniscorthy in the late 1960’s; as the novel opens Nora is struggling to cope with the newness of her widowhood – her grief still new. Yet daily, Nora must contend with well-meaning callers, who tell her how sorry they are – how much they thought of Maurice her husband. Maurice had been a much respected teacher at the school that Nora’s two sons Donal and Conor still attend. Nora’s daughters are away, Fiona at teacher training college, Aine at boarding school working towards her final examinations which will help her get to University.
Donal and Conor in their early teens are both showing signs of distress, severely affected by the abandonment they felt while their father was dying. During the last couple of months of Maurice’s life, Nora spent all her time at the hospital with her husband; her two sons went to live with Nora’s Aunt Josie. In all those weeks they didn’t see their mother – later Josie remembers how the boys would look hopefully out of the window at the sound of a car. Upon their return to Nora, following their father’s death, the boys are troubled, Donal has a stutter he didn’t have before, which only seems to get worse. Nora may have been a little short sighted; but in the face of her husband’s impending death she probably wasn’t thinking straight. She shows herself to be a good, kind, protective mother, full of concern and quite prepared to kick up a right fuss when Conor is moved into another class for no reason. So much of the relationship between Nora and her boys is strained, some things go unspoken, skirted around, misunderstood. I found this beautifully rendered and poignant, those tiny fissures of hurt that if not handled well could so easily shatter a fragile family. All of them are learning to live in this new world.
One of the decisions Nora makes quickly in those difficult early days is to sell the Cush house, where she, Maurice and the children spent so many happy summers. The house symbolises a time that can never come again, and Nora knows she will not be able to bear going there anymore.
“In her mind, she stood in the house in Cush again, and she tried to picture the children on a summer’s day, taking their togs and towels from the line and going down to the strand, or herself and Maurice walking home along the lanes at dusk trying to keep the swarms of midges at bay, and coming into the house to the sound of children playing cards. It was all over and would not come back. The house lay empty. She pictured the small rooms in the darkness, how miserable they would be. Inhospitable. She imagined the sound of rain on the galvanized roof, the doors and windows rattling in the wind, the bare bedframes, the insects lurking in the dark crevices, and the relentless sea.”
Other decisions must soon follow – whether to go back to work at the Gibney’s flour mill office where she once worked before her marriage. The office ruled over by a locally infamous woman Francie Kavanagh – who Nora had known and not liked when she was a girl. As time goes on, Nora must learn how to balance the needs of her family with her own wants and her changing life, she discovers friendship in unlikely places and the simple joy of music.
Nora Webster is a delicately nuanced, introspective kind of novel, it’s definitely a character driven narrative, and one which I found took slow, considered reading. It was such a pleasure spending quality time with Nora Webster over several days; I did become totally immersed in her world. Nora Webster is a novel about loss, discovery, friendship and the rebuilding of a life. In many ways, despite this novel not having much of a plot – an awful lot does happen – that may seem like a contradiction, but so much seems to happen at an emotional level. Nora learns to live her life without Maurice, interact with the people of the town – who seem to see her differently – her own family and the new people who come into her life. As this process is gone through Nora finds herself moving further away from Maurice – and that in itself is a different kind of grief – and one, those of us who have ever lost someone will understand. Tóibín writes about bereavement and memory with honest rawness, which is never sentimental.
Nora Webster is quite simply a wonderful novel.