Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: October 7, 2014
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
This was a selection from my book club. No offense to my dear book club friends, but I must say this is miss number two as of late. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was also a book club selection and also something of which I wasn't a fan. My book club usually picks two books each month. With all the other reading I do, I usually pick one of the books to read. Sometimes, I don't have a preference so I just put them both on the library hold list and read the first one that comes in. That was the case here. The second book (that still hasn't arrived from the library - I need to cancel that hold) is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
Not having read a lot of Irish authors, I have to ask. Do they all write in stream of consciousness? There were many instances where James Joyce's influence on Tóibín were extremely apparent. Entire paragraphs dedicated to the typical wandering around a house people do when they are alone. The whole book is about the anonymous domestic life of an Irish widow. As a whole, it seemed like an odd jumbled together set of non sequiturs to fill space and pages.
Nora Webster is not particularly likable nor loathable. While I realize the book starts in 1969 and parenting styles have certainly changed, it still felt like she was extremely removed from her children and, only late, did she really start to show them any compassion. Her late husband was obviously well loved. You get the sense, both from what was said in the book and what was left unsaid, that he was the one, true parent as well. Even her grief seemed flat in places. There are references to a deep grief that came while the husband was dying (for example, leaving her two boys for two months with an aunt and not even visiting), but I just didn't see anything more than a numbness described during the time period of the actual book. Nora comes across as very flat, at times uncaring and absent, and certainly socially awkward. What did she do before her husband died?
And yet, the people around her act as if they are afraid of her. Her single sister doesn't tell Nora she is dating. In fact, she is engaged to be married before she tells Nora. Of course, it's a small town, Nora already knew. There are numerous instances where things are kept from Nora because people are afraid of her reaction. The only glimpse into a possible cause for this is found in a scene where Nora has been asleep and wakes up to overhear her sisters, aunt and friend discussing her. The relatives are telling the friend about what a demon Nora had been before she met her husband and how much she changed once she met him. But then proceed to give an example of "demon"-like behavior that a) came after she had met him and b) was fairly tame all things considered.
There are references to The Troubles in Ireland at the time, but even these came across as flat and merely plot devices to move along a rather dull book. I realize I'm not the biggest fan of the domestic life fiction or historical fiction (though I'm not sure that's an accurate genre for this book) so that may be why I just didn't care for this book. My favorite books are fantasy and science fiction so I am fond of a bit more action in my novels. I would recommend this to anyone who really loves glimpses into the domestic life of another culture or enjoys watching a character grow and change and Nora does do that, albeit extremely slowly and a bit dully.