by Edith Cody-Rice
Colm Toibin is certainly a fine writer, a portrayer of the particular details of ordinary life that render them interesting to a reader; material that in other hands, might seem dull. Returning to his theme of women and their children, this much honored author (his novel Brooklyn was the winner of the Costa Novel Award and three other novels were finalists for the Man Booker prize) sets out the life of recently widowed Nora Webster, a woman in her late forties with two nearly grown daughters and two much younger sons. Nothing much happens to Nora and yet everything happens. The major event of her life: the death of her much loved husband Maurice, occurs before the novel opens and in the very early pages, we see subtle references to her diminished status, from wife of a popular teacher to widow. Of a neighbour who meets her in her yard she thinks,
He was using a tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
Nora must go back to work, to the job she had as a young woman at a locally owned factory. She is now under the supervision of a woman that she despised in her youth, but she is determined and feisty. Through his carefully built scenarios, we recognize that Nora has backbone and will not be trampled upon. The narrative alternates between a third party voice and Nora’s own. She is unsure; she begins to do things that her husband would have disdained , like joining the music club. Yet slowly she emerges as her own self, unfettered by the compromises of marriage. We see her thoughts, through her worries about her children and money; her love and, at the same time, her resentment of her eldest daughter who freely spends money earned by her mother; yet, in the end, helps with the rent. And we hear the complaints of her relatives about her. Her aunt criticizes her for leaving her sons with her while her husband was dying, for example displaying the small mindedness and pettiness that Nora has to endure. She herself is intelligent, and a bit forbidding as several characters in the novel make clear.
The novel is set in the late 1960’s and the Irish “Troubles” enter the story only tangentially – in newscasts seen by the characters and in the participation of one of Nora’s daughters. Small town Eire is its focus, far from Belfast.
Nora Webster focuses more on exploration of a character than on strong plot. We meet all the people in Nora’s life, friends and family and, in the end, the story simple ends. In fact, it tails off leaving some elements unresolved. Her elder son develops a strong stutter after staying with an aunt while Nora’s husband was dying. We never learn the cause of that stutter, or what happened at the aunt’s house. Perhaps Toibin intended this as a reflection of a real life – where many things are unresolved and the characters simply accept and endure.