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Nora Webster

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

Title: Nora Webster
Author: Colm Tóibín
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
ISBN: 978-0-670-91815-7
Reviewed by: David Lea

Colm Tóibín’s Costa award-winning novel Brooklyn told the story of a young Irish woman who emigrated to a new life and opportunities in America in the 1960s.

The town that she left, Enniscorthy, on the south-east coast of Ireland, is Tóibín’s home town and the setting for his new novel, Nora Webster, also set in the late 1960s – the story of a middle-aged woman with four children, married to a teacher but recently widowed.

The death of her husband Maurice means that, in the midst of her numbing sense of grief, Nora now has to take full responsibility for the financial security of her family and for the upbringing of her children. Her two young boys are still at school and her two elder daughters are just entering adulthood; all of them are also dealing with – but not talking about – their own grief.

As Nora grapples with the almost overwhelming sense of loss, she gradually begins to express and follow her own views and interests, and (at first reluctantly) to meet and engage with new people. The need to secure financial independence means a return to the workplace and a redefining of herself as a woman of independence. All of this takes place under the gaze of a highly conservative and judgemental (but also supportive) community, rendered by Tóibín with honesty and wry affection.

Although the community is inward looking, events in the north of Ireland – the start of ‘The Troubles’ and the Bloody Sunday massacre1 – start to impinge on local awareness through political conversations and the involvement of Nora’s daughter Aine in the growing civil rights movement in Dublin. Initially, Nora’s response to conversations about politics is to wonder what her late husband would have thought and said, but gradually she feels confident enough to express her own views.

Tóibín began writing Nora Webster in 2000, and the long gestation of the work is perhaps reflected in the slow, deliberate pace of the novel, but it is told exquisitely in his plain and unadorned style. Tóibín is a wonderfully economical writer, with few long descriptive passages. We don’t gain understanding or insights from big events or long speeches but, much more subtly and authentically, through a step-by-step accretion of small incidents, comments and observations.

The recounting of ‘ordinary’ day-to-day life and events could be a recipe for banality, but Tóibín is a master of prose and extracts humour, pathos and drama from the quotidian. We accompany Nora on her journey to self-affirmation, which reaches its

Category: Autumn 2015, Book Reviews

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