Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

At the heart of Colm Tóibín‘s new novel is the story of a woman, a story, he says, he’d been circling around for years. It’s there, in his novels and stories (eight novels and a collection) as a metaphor, an idea at the perimeter. That novel, Nora Webster, just released, centers on a widow in 1960’s Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. With the death of her husband, she is left with her four children, forced from her traditional role into the head of the family and breadwinner. The test of these sudden demands also presents opportunities. Newly alone, Nora is able to recover aspects of her younger self that were lost to her traditional role as housewife in a small Irish village town.

For Tóibín, the Irish-born author whose works have won accolades in both the States and internationally, it’s a story that’s been inhabiting him for years. At a standing-room-only crowd in an event at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, he said the novel is one he’s been waiting to write, he said, and would have regretted had he not. Tóibín described the novel as less plot driven and more interested in character, in the changes brought upon Nora in a specific place and time.

Though, he added, the novel is not a historical one. Nora Webster intersects social history with the personal. Tóibín described how, just as his own family did after the death of his father (when the author was twelve), the fictional family watched movies Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman on television, stunned by grief into never mentioning the family tragedy. For Nora and her children, the loss is unspeakable, and as happened in the author’s own family, was never spoken of, so that certain films, like Gaslight, seemed to carry images and ideas that for spoke directly to the loss in startling connections.

As with his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, this new work enables an exploration of the alienation that comes with the new, but unlike the earlier novel, in which a young woman, Eilis Lacey, travels from Ireland to New York, Nora Webster stays close to home and mines its character in the place she lives. “It’s a story,” Tóibín described, “of a town and the relationship of the house to the town,” a study of people in a time and place now changed, but in its own way, a time that is also lost within its own era.

Set during a transformative period in Ireland, in the years leading to Bloody Sunday, we see the stresses and demands visited upon Nora as she grieves for her husband Maurice. Tóibín reveals Nora in beautiful depth, and it’s a thrill to read. Here’s Nora when, in desperation from the stress of her newly acquired office job, she escapes to the coast, to Cush where the family once had a summer house:

She could barely see ahead of her as she walked. It might have been easy to imagine that this was a place that belonged more to Maurice than to her. It was the world filled with absences. There was merely the hushed sound of the water and stray cries of seabirds flying close to the surface of calm sea. She could make out the sun as it glowed through the curtain of haze. It was unlikely that Maurice was anywhere except buried in the graveyard where she had left him. But nonetheless the idea lingered that if he, or his spirit was anywhere in the world, then he would be here.

So much of Tóibín’s novels are centered on this “world filled with absences.” The regrets and failures that visit Henry James in The Master, and the vanished worlds that inhabit the houses of Menorca and Barcelona in The Empty Family. Yet Tóibín’s stance is unsentimental—there’s an element of reportage at work that points to his early years as a journalist. He has in fact described this workmanlike narrative style as a kind of dictation—as if the character is stating aloud her most intimate thoughts, and the author is an impartial scribe.

There is much in Nora Webster that links back to Tóibín’s early years in Enniscorthy: the death of his father, the unspoken grief of his mother, the onset of the Troubles. When asked if writing the novel was, then, a kind of therapy, Tóibín observed, “The page is not a mirror. It’s blank,” reminding us that the demands of novel-writing don’t allow the writer that latitude. He went on to say the process entails distance, and an ability to see one’s material clearly enough to make into a book. If there’s any place for the autobiographical, it’s “a question of finding a place in yourself where you can see within yourself, including the worst part.”

Tóibín is a generous, curious and meticulous writer, entranced by and dedicated to his art. When asked if in his twenty-five years in publishing, much had changed, he had this to say:

Not much has changed. You write alone, in silence for a reader you will never meet, who reads alone, in silence.

More about Nora Webster here.

—Lauren Alwan

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