Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Read in February 2015

5 of 5 stars

It is the 1960s and Nora Webster's husband Maurice has died young, and she is left to fend for herself and her four children in a small town in Southern Ireland. Maurice was a teacher who was loved and respected throughout the community: a presence whom people gravitated toward, known for his love of company, his compassion and his strong political beliefs. For the years of their marriage, Nora was content to exist in his shadow. But with his death she is thrust into the front line of life and must make a go of it. The two girls, Fiona and Aine, are more or less grown and out of the house, but still at home are Conor and Donal, youngsters who must find their way now without a father. Nora daily feels the tremendous loss of her husband--almost minute by minute--but she has no choice but to heal, a process that is gradual and begins with a clearly articulated wish that people would cease their unannounced visits and pitying stares and let her grieve in peace. Eventually she finds herself facing major lifestyle choices (selling the cottage, returning to work) and with each one a subtle distancing from Maurice and his influence takes place, making it easier for her to face the next decision when it comes along. Toibin's novel chronicles Nora's gradual awakening, from tentative widow and mother deferring to the wishes of others and second-guessing her every move, to independent woman getting on with things and making her life her own. The novel is set in life's trenches, where people drag themselves out of bed each morning to face a day that might very well defeat them. Toibin's prose achieves stunning elegance in its very simplicity. The writing is sometimes little more than a chronicle of what happens moment by moment. But this is Toibin's genius. He immerses the reader in Nora's conscious thoughts so that not only do we see the world through her eyes, but we feel her needs and desires and suffer keenly her losses and anxieties and injuries. Such drama as exists is built around encounters and Nora's anticipation (or dread) of them. Because this is art imitating life you might be fooled into thinking you are reading a novel in which nothing happens. It is only at the end when you emerge from Nora’s story and realize where you've been that you grasp the level of skill needed to create a complete and entirely engaging world in prose.