The early death from heart disease of school master Maurice Webster, the underpinning of Colm Toibin’s latest offering, Nora Webster, occurs before the novel opens. Set in Enniscorthy, Ireland, in the late 1960s, the book brilliantly conjures the life of Nora Webster, Maurice’s widow as she grieves over her loss and stoically gets on with things.
Maurice has left Nora with four children – grown daughters Fiona and Aine away at school in Dublin; and two pre-teen sons, Conor and Donal. In addition to a comfortable Wexford home, Nora has inherited a beach house south of Limerick, a property she immediately sells, contents and all. With the profits she dutifully buys a headstone for Maurice’s grave.
In his typical understated yet precise and vivid prose, Toibin’s character-portrait novel once again demonstrates his genius at inhabiting a female protagonist. His 2009 novel Brooklyn depicted an unforgettable young woman named Eilis Lacey. As he portrays Nora’s life, Toibin withholds commentary and explanations, telling her story matter-of-factly, thus allowing readers their own interpretations. And to his credit he refrains from introducing a suitor for Nora. The narrative is without a love interest of that kind.
The author limits himself to the language, syntax and idiom Nora would have used. For example, when to her sister she describes one of the owners of the lofty Gibney Mills, the area’s largest employer, she says, “You should see Peggy Gibney; she’s grander than your friend Dilly. Almost too grand to move.”
Nora is rankled rather than soothed by the flow of visitors to her home as they come to commiserate with her. They are overly familiar, and some are searching for the grim details of Maurice’s final days. “They mean well. People mean well,” she says, but she craves Maurice’s presence to keep their unwanted interest away.
Late in the novel Toibin captures Nora’s new predicament. She is attending a musical event at a crowded pub:
“So this is what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident; it was the wandering in this sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.”
The novel is chronological, and its point of view is strictly Nora’s. Readers find out only what she perceives. As time passes her husband’s death becomes less of a trauma. She visits her sisters and her aunt; housekeeping and caring for her children, especially Conor and Donal, take up her time as do frequent visits from Maurice’s unmarried sister and brother, Margaret and Jim, gentle persons less capable than Nora. She returns to work, after 25 years, in the accounting department of Gibney’s Mills.
Never does she speak to her children about their father’s death, yet resents the fact that Donal discusses it with his aunt Margaret. As a result of his loss Donal has become fractious and sullen, and he has developed a stammer. As for Conor, Nora muses, “He would ways be like this…he would become a man who would worry about things, who watched for signs that something would go wrong.”
As the months pass Maurice’s influence over Nora diminishes. Masterfully Toibin conveys the contradiction in her consciousness – she loved her husband, but she loves, too, her new freedom. Now she can do “whatever she wants.” She buys a record player and begins listening to classical music. (Maurice had always thought classical music fans to be pretentious.)
The music stirs her, and in an extraordinary way, it transports her away from the everyday to an awareness of her feelings. A new, younger friend named Phyllis Langdon recognizes Nora’s gift for singing and encourages her to perform in choirs and solo. By the book’s ending Nora’s life is far removed from her earlier days as a school teacher’s wife. Her life now revolves around her passion for classical music.
Nora’s personal transformation unfolds against a backdrop of a changing Ireland. Toibin’s narrative features references to the Catholic/Protestant riots in the North and to the friction between newly unionized workers and their employers.
There is no way to justify what has happened in Nora Webster. The reality is that a man has died young, leaving his family to suffer while they fend for themselves. Toibin does not attempt to rationalize fate’s inscrutable action.