Book review: Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’

Nora Webster. Colm Toibin. Scribner. 384 pages. $32.50.
Nora Webster. Colm Toibin. Scribner. 384 pages. $32.50.

Somewhere between James Joyce’s exuberant Ireland of a century ago and Tana French’s gritty post-Celtic tiger Ireland lies the Ireland of Colm Toibin, encapsulated entirely in Enniscorthy. The second-largest town in County Wexford, which isn’t saying much, Enniscorthy is the award-winning author’s birthplace. It is, at least in Toibin’s works, a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, creating a breach between what can be said and what is felt.

And yet, Enniscorthy is where Toibin found his voice as a writer. It is where Nora Webster in his aching new novel searches for her own.

Nora’s husband, Maurice, is dead, leaving her a widow at 40 with four young children and trapped within a bubble of grief. “It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want.” The novel’s premise is not the four-hankie weeper it threatens to be. Toibin — and Nora — surprise and subvert. Even Nora’s sister says, “She was a demon.”

What qualifies as demonic in Enniscorthy in the 1970s is Nora’s prickliness, an inability to bend, to acquiesce to the forced niceties required to make small-town life liveable. As a neighbor says, “I get through the day, Nora. That’s all I do. And I leave everything else to itself.” Nora, though, has outbursts of feelings she cannot always keep at bay. When a well-meaning family friend — a nun, no less — tells her Maurice’s death is the will of God, she explodes. “Don’t tell me about how the Lord works! Don’t tell me that again! He has not been watching over me! No one has been watching over me!”

With neither God nor husband to guide her, Nora must discover herself. Toibin follows her small victories, defeats, mistakes, indignities and small but nonetheless heroic efforts to get back to “the world of others,” like the bad dye job she endures before a job interview. “As soon as the boys saw her they both became quiet. Donal looked away while Conor moved towards her. He reached out and touched her hair. ‘It’s all hard,’ he said. ‘Where did you get it?’”

Toibin’s restraint, sly humor and gentle prose cadence echo those of another Irish master, William Trevor. So does his affection for his characters. It manifests in an Irish way — protective, keeping them at a polite distance. So proscribed are emotional displays of any sort, Nora and her family do not even give in to them at home, yet their unspoken grief still finds its way to the fore. Nora’s son Donal develops a stammer. Her daughter Aine becomes caught up in the Troubles. Nora becomes unable to sleep. The novel’s most intriguing character, though, is Enniscorthy itself, where Nora gets the whole town talking because she buys a stereo.

Music becomes Nora’s pleasure and solace. Silent for so many years, she begins to take singing lessons. She does not become the next Ireland’s Got Talent star — Enniscorthy and Toibin wouldn’t stand for it. The only talent show Nora appears in is down at the pub one town over. It does not go well. And yet it doesn’t matter. “What she had told no one, because it was too strange, was how much this music had come to stand for. It was her dream-life, a life she might have had if she had been born elsewhere,” writes Toibin in the swooping, soaring prose he employs when revealing Nora’s feelings and inner life. “She wondered if she was alone in having nothing in between the dullness of her own days and the sheer brilliance of this imagined life.”

How Nora chooses to make her voice heard and how her children find ways to express their own pain provide Nora Webster’s plot and pleasure. As the late Carol Shields showed in her 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Stone Diaries, a so-called average life can make for a thrilling read. If Nora Webster lacks that verve, Toibin likewise presents one woman’s life keenly observed and honored with compassion. With Enniscorthy, he also creates a town, constrained and forever behind the times though it is, that feels like the whole world.

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.