Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

nora webster‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we meet Nora, it’s some weeks since her husband Maurice died of cancer, and the story takes us through the next three years or so of her life. The book is set in Tóibín’s own birth town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford just at the turn of the decade to the 1970s. This means it’s positioned between two of Tóibín’s earlier works: Brooklyn, about a young Irish girl sent abroad from the same town as an economic migrant in the 1950s, and The Blackwater Lightship, about three generations of women forced together by grief and trying to overcome old resentments. Although these books are entirely separate from this one in terms of story and characters, Tóibín makes reference to them both early on, and it would not be unreasonable, I feel, to see the three as a loose trilogy, building together to show us the changes in this small old-fashioned society over the decades, especially as they affected women. Brooklyn was set at a time when girls were still expected to conform to traditions upheld by their families and church in terms of their lives and marriages, while in The Blackwater Lightship, Helen has broken almost completely from this society and its traditions, though we see how they can still exert an emotional hold over her. Here, through Nora Webster, we see the midway point – the cusp of feminism if you like, arriving late in this small backwater, when women were beginning to see the possibilities of a life not pre-defined for them by parents or husbands.

Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains
Enniscorthy and Blackstairs Mountains

Like so much of Tóibín’s writing, this is a small, quiet story, told simply, without big philosophical statements or poetic flourishes. But its simplicity enables Tóibín to create complete and utterly truthful characters – people we feel we have known, may even have been. The book rests almost entirely on characterisation – the plot is minimal. Nora is in her forties with two daughters almost grown and living away at school and college, and two younger sons, both deeply affected by the death of their father and by Nora’s withdrawal into grief. We see that the marriage was a traditional one, with Maurice as the breadwinner and the one who made the big decisions, while Nora fulfilled the role of housewife and mother and had no expectations of a wider life. Left to cope on her own after Maurice’s death, at first she is determined to maintain a continuity with the past and to hold her grief inside herself, hoping that a sense of normality will shield her sons from the worst feelings of loss. But as time passes, and as she is thrust back into the world through the economic need to work, Nora begins to feel the influence of the changes that are taking place in society.

Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried.

My reaction to Tóibín’s writing of these women of the generation of Nora, and Eilis from Brooklyn, is a very personal one, mainly because his characters remind me so much of my own mother. The cultures of Ireland and the West of Scotland are so intertwined that I find the society he portrays wholly recognisable; and these strong post-war women who bore their sorrows within themselves, often in silence, are written with such integrity and understanding. As Nora gradually emerges from her first grief and begins, in a small way, to embrace life again, Tóibín subtly shows the guilt she feels, as if her enjoyment is a betrayal of her husband. And when, at this time of change, she finds she is drawn to things that Maurice would never have understood, such as developing a love for classical music and a desire to learn to sing, we see her struggle to accept her own right to make decisions about her life – a right she may never have considered had Maurice lived. Even making a decision to buy something for herself is so carefully weighed against the guilt that she may be being selfish, that her own wants shouldn’t matter.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Though the story is very focussed on Nora, through her Tóibín shows the impact of the wider events of the time. Maurice was the political one in the family, but now, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland worsening every day, Nora finds herself forming her own opinions and no longer being willing to nod quietly in acceptance of the views of the men in her family. Through her daughters, Tóibín shows how much freer the next generation of women felt, and how much more involved they would be in the world outside the home, both in careers and politics. For me the three books – from Eilis in Brooklyn, through Nora and her daughters, and on to Helen in The Blackwater Lightship – give a complete and wholly credible picture of the changes in women’s lives in these small communities throughout the second half of the last century. And of the three books, this is the one I enjoyed most. Nora, while not always totally likeable, is beautifully drawn and her emotions ring true at every step of the way. A deeply moving book, as Tóibín’s always are – not because of any cheap emotional tricks, but because of the clarity and truthfulness of his characterisation. This one gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK. Er…and Scribner. (What can I say? I requested it from both to be on the safe side and they both approved it. Oops!)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

60 thoughts on “Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

  1. FictionFan – I really need to read more non-crime fiction, and this sounds like a great choice. I like the historical context too. And what a time of change this historical period was. Hmmm…. I may have to shoehorn this one onto the TBR…

    • It’s only a couple of years since I first read one of Toibin’s books, but he’s now firmly established as one of my all-time favourites. If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enoy it! 🙂

  2. What a beautiful and heart touching review, FF. Sold, to the woman who likes Russian fiction, but also is very drawn to Irish and Scottish writing.

    Twill have to wait its turn though, as a couple of others in the 3 figured TBR are keen to avoid relegation

    • Thank you, LF! I hope you enjoy it – I feel that it doesn’t have the same issues which just stopped Brooklyn from being totally great – Nora is much less passive than Eilis, and a more experienced Toibin hasn’t felt the need to tack on a neatly tied up ending in this one.

    • I’ve still got a few of his to get to, but I’ve loved every one I’ve read so far, though I think his more recent ones are noticeably better than the earlier ones. Going on your reviews, I suspect this could be just your kind of thing… 🙂

  3. Oh dear, oh dear – another one I’ll be forced to read. As a long-time fan of Toibin, I’d have read it anyway, so I can’t REALLY blame you!

  4. This sounds absolutely fantastic so I completely understand why you needed two copies 😉 I do like stories which show the changes to women’s lives over the last few generation, if only because it makes me glad that I was lucky enough to be born when I was. I also like stories that tell a story without big pronouncements and the need for clever tricks – this IS going to have to go on the TBR. Thanks for a great review.

  5. First off, I recognized the author’s name! Nice. I think I’m feeling proud of myself, the sudden.

    Also, this was an awesome review. But…I do get the idea that the book maybe lacks action?

    The author takes an excellent picture!

    • So you should be! My reviews are so long it’s nearly like reading the book…

      *laughs lots* Ah, you spotted that then? Yes, the book’s major weakness is a lack of aliens, I feel…

      *giggles helplessly* Yes, doesn’t he? (I may need to start yet another blog just for author pics…)

            • I know – he’s hopeless! Thank goodness you’re around to fill in…

              Very nice! But… *gulps* … I’m not a big fan of Bach to be truthful. But I listened to some of his other stuff on youtube and he sounds good – oddly, I’ve never heard of him…

            • *laughs* I’m always ready to fill in…

              What?! Bach? You don’t like Bach? Hmm… *thinking about something he should probably do*

              Yeah…he’s okay. He’s not one of my favorites. See how he has his right hand bent? That’s bad.

            • My head appreciates him, but my heart remains unmoved… usually. *thinking about something he should probably do too – wonders if it’s the same thing…*

              Hmm… I did try to see what you mean, but I don’t in truth. So I watched Mr Williams to see if I could spot the difference – and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not actually possible for a human to play classical guitar at all! No way could the brain cope with both hands doing such entirely different things at the same time – so fast! Which must mean Mr Williams is an alien… not to mention the Professor!

            • Well, what are thou thinking on, then, FEF?

              *laughs* But he’s just as bad…I did neglect to tell you that. But I think I can do it, and I’m not green… Maybe I’m a different sort of alien?

            • *enigmatic face that she copied from the Professor* You’ll never know…

              *laughing* You did! Well, tell me someone who plays it right then, and I’ll see if I can spot the difference. Hmm…not green, eh? Well that rules out Tharks…

            • *maybe growls and gurgles*

              Check out Manuel Barrueco, I think. He should be rather swell. Though it was a problem with the older players overall. Rats! And I wanted to be a Thark, too.

            • (Fluffy and Zezzy! How c&a!)

              Oh yes! I do see! But he holds the guitar in quite a different position – somewhere between horizontal and vertical. Which, when I think about it, is kinda how Spanish guitarists hold it, isn’t it?

            • What’s an a-frame? And what do you use then, since I assume you play it the right way? (Perhaps you just naturally have one extremely high knee… or very sloping shoulders… or one arm that’s two feet longer than the other? *intrigued face*)

            • So, an a-frame is this sorta weird looking thing that sits on the lap and holds the guitar up. I’ve never used one of those. I’ve used a footstool at times and a strap. But…I don’t like it. Now, a classical guitar strap is different from a regular guitar strap. A classical strap holds the guitar higher. So, I prefer a “normal” strap when standing, or nothing when sitting. If I was competing, however, with classical guitar, I would use a footstool so that the whole neck is accessible.

            • I was right with you up until the last bit. Why does using a footstool give you access to the whole neck? And if you don’t use any of these things then…how do you manage to keep your hand in the right position?

            • Well, the higher up the neck you go, it helps if the guitar is a bit higher in the air…must be physics. That’s a good question…well…because I’m special! No, seriously, if I’m playing hard stuff, I’ll use something to prop the guitar up with. I’ve heard that Sor originally used a table!

            • See, I reckon if they’d taught us about stuff like that in science, I might’ve listened. I wonder why it should be so? Yes, I suspect you are! Who’s Sor? I can’t imagine how you could use a table… *chuckles at mind images*

              And, while you are in teacherly mode, what’s the advantage of being able to go higher up the neck anyway?

            • Fernando Sor was a very early classical guitarist. He had speaks with Beethoven once about composing for the guitar, but Beethoven never did, sadly. I’ll have to show you that old drawling of him some day. It does look awkward!

              Well… *shocked face* Well, the cool thing about the guitar is that you can play a few of the same notes, in different positions. I know that’s a bit hard to understand. So, different positions, different colors of sound. Plus, it’s so fun to use the whole neck…so much expression that way.

            • Somehow I think of classical guitar as being quite a modern thing – except for Spanish stuff. Did many of the old composers write for it?

              I see…I think. It would be so much easier if you did video demonstrations though… *winks cheekily*

    • This is definitely much more in the style of Brooklyn than The Testament of Mary, so I’d think you’d probably enjoy this one. I really enjoyed Brooklyn, but I actually think this one is better…

  6. I just saw this in the New York Times. If I must say, you do a far better job than the staff writers at the Book Review. They just give lengthy plot summaries and offer no actual judgment….

    • Well, thank you – I’m chuffed to bits with that comment! 😀 I must admit I quite often find that with press reviews, that they’re basically just plot summaries, and quite often they’re full of spoilers too. Though with this book there’s not too much in the way of plotting as such, so not much to give away…

  7. Toibin is one of my favourite writers and your insight into his writing was astute and i like the personal touch (reference to the women bing like your mother) your reviews bring the books to life -thanks

    • Thanks, Bookgirl! What a lovely comment! 😀

      Since he’s one of your favourites already, I think you’ll love this – it’s one of the best of his that I’ve read…

  8. A great review, as always. It’s interesting to see it, as you suggest, as a loose trilogy linked by subject or theme, rather than characters. You surely understand Toibin.

    “Testament” — the stage play — is opening at A.C.T. here in San Francisco later this month, with Seanna McKenna. He’ll be in town, of course, previews start next week. It’s a perfect theater for it.

    • Thanks, Matt! He does tend to write the same themes over and over again, but always approaching it from a slightly different angle. This is the one that hit the mark most for me – Toibin thinks he’s writing about his mother, but actually he’s writing about mine! Have you read it yet?

      I don’t know Seanna McKenna at all, but Google tells me she’s a very experienced stage actress. Should be good… 🙂

      • He may be writing about your mother, but he surely isn’t writing about mine! Maybe Patsy Sullivan Geyer would have risen to the occasion should life have thrown her such a curve, but I’m surely glad it didn’t. It was hard enough for her when it happened when she was 59.

        I’m half-way through NW and enjoying it. I’d have finished but, on a recent trip to visit our daughter in college, I happened upon a first edition (second printing) of For Whom the Bell Tolls . . . for $35! A very interesting read (my first), especially how H. deals with conveying the sense of speaking a foreign language when you’re fighting the the Spanish Civil War.

        I’ll have a full report on Testament, and will post it perhaps on the Testament of Mary thread.

        Go Giants! Wait, that’s a baseball thing. Forget about it.

        • Ah, yes, admittedly my mother was older than Nora too, but Nora’s reaction to dealing with her grief, and then her gradual development as she faced the world as an individual really struck chords…

          It’s odd, because I really expected to hate it and at the time I read it wasn’t at all sure that I didn’t … but The Sun Also Rises has stayed in my mind and has definitely had more impact than almost any other book I’ve read this year. So I may have to read For Whom… myself soon.

          Yes, please do – I’d love to hear what you think of it.

          Haha! Go Sox! 😉

  9. Lovely review. I really like the way you’ve positioned Nora between Brooklyn and The Blackwater Lightship. Even though I’ve yet to read Brooklyn, I can see what you mean by the idea of these three novels forming a loose trilogy. I wonder what Tóibín will write next, whether he’ll continue the Enniscorthy-based theme or move on to something different.

    • Thank you! I think I really noticed the connections because I read all three books within a few months of each other. I really only found Toibin with The Testament of Mary and have been working my way through some of his earlier books. I think you’ll enjoy Brooklyn, though for me Nora is the best of the three. I’d quite like to see him stay in Enniscorthy – he does these small town women so well… but then I loved Mary too…

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