Review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

nora-webster“From one of contemporary literature’s bestselling, critically acclaimed and beloved authors, a magnificent new novel set in Ireland, about a fiercely compelling young widow and mother of four, navigating grief and fear, struggling for hope.
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.
Nora Webster is a masterpiece in character study by a writer at the zenith of his career, “beautiful and daring” (The New York Times Book Review) and able to “sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations” (USA TODAY). In Nora Webster, Tóibín has created a character as iconic, engaging and memorable as Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler.” – Publisher Summary

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin is a story of grief, survival, and healing (of a sort) set in the late 1960’s in Toibin’s native County Wexford in Ireland. Our tale begins with (who else but) Nora Webster struggling with fresh, raw grief as she mourns the recent loss of her husband, Maurice, who was beloved by her family and the community around them. Well-meaning neighbors and friends have been calling to the Webster home each evening to offer their condolences and share memories of Maurice, hoping to bring comfort to Nora and family. Instead, these visits wear on Nora and she wishes desperately to be left alone – she longs for the visits to end, so she will no longer have to face these people as they stare into her eyes, offering sympathy and pity, waiting for some kind of reaction from her.

For Nora knows not how to react – it is difficult enough for her to manage her home and her family while she searches for a way to live without the love of her life. So intense and internal is Nora’s grief, that she tends to be emotionally distant – almost neglectful – of her children and seems to be blind to their own struggles with their father’s death, particularly in the case of her two young sons, Connor and Donal. There are many occurrences where Nora needs to further investigate behavior, or reports of incidents, in which she decides to “let things be” to make things “easier for everyone” – namely, easier on Nora herself. Nora is emotionally distanced from most of her family, in fact – her two daughters, her sisters, her in-laws… There is much resentment toward her for this, although it is quite subtly expressed in the story.

Nora must return to work at the office site where she worked years ago, before she married Maurice. She does not find a home away from home there, however, and it is not until Nora joins a music association and takes up singing lessons – her talent a gift she inherited from her late mother – that she begins to find a semblance of solace and peace from within, as well as a sense of independence she was not aware she had.

Nora Webster is much more a novel about character and place than one of plot. While Toibin writes of his heroine with empathy, he is surprisingly unsentimental about her – which frames her for the reader much as she is seen by her family and friends. Toibin weaves into his tale threads of the the civil unrest in Northern Ireland that was prevalent at the time, as well as other pertinent political rivalries, although it does nothing to pump up an excitement level in this novel. No, this tale is very much a quiet and serene one, very simply detailing Nora’s life through the years following Maurice’s death. To be honest, I often found myself wondering what the point of the novel was. I kept waiting for some kind of revelation, some kind of… something. But that something just never came.

No worries, friends, because it appears I am in the minority in my opinion of Nora Webster – it has received rave reviews across the board. It seems as though nine out of ten reviewers simply adored it! If you are a fan of Colm Toibin, by all means continue on to read this one; if you are new to his work – well, I would recommend starting with Brooklyn, a personal favorite, but go ahead and try this one out, too.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. Buy it, read it, love it.

2 stars

Source: Scribner {via NetGalley}

 

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