Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín - book review: This is a writer of integrity

The slow-moving narrative plods through every sad step on Nora’s journey, the sentences settling us into the gentle rhythm of life for a middle-aged widow in late Sixties Ireland

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The Independent Culture

It’s the late 1960s and Nora Webster is a middle-aged mother of four living in rural Ireland and recovering from the death of her husband.

As you might expect from Colm Tóibín, an author not known for his focus on storytelling, this recovery doesn’t come through a series of big, dramatic events. In fact, it’s so gradual that at times it barely even registers. But ever so slowly Nora does begin to heal. She watches films with her sons and feels comforted when she discovers similarities with her own life experience. And she finds solace by listening to music that mirrors and complements her own emotions – as well as providing an escape from what she sees as “the dullness of her own days”. For Tóibín, the arts can help us through life and make us feel less alone – perhaps a hint as to his intention when writing this book.

Because there’s no question that the novel’s main theme is grief; Nora Webster is a beautiful and heartbreaking portrayal of one woman’s experience of depression and loneliness. But it also evokes the protagonist’s struggle to find – and express – her own voice and identity. Nora is an intelligent woman with strong opinions but because of social circumstances she hasn’t acted on this until now. Slowly, through the freedom she finds in her new status as a widow, she begins to do so.

Of course, themes like death, loss and the search for identity will be familiar to regular readers of Tóibín – as will the setting and some of the novel’s minor characters. Like The Heather Blazing and The Blackwater Lightship, Nora Webster is set in the author’s hometown of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. In its opening scene Nora is visited by May Lacey, the mother of Eilis, the young girl who emigrated to the US in Brooklyn. As in previous novels, the world of small-town Ireland is evoked with exceptional skill; Nora Webster is a quietly perceptive and wonderfully modulated portrayal of life here in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It’s so richly detailed and laced with such dialogue that you feel like you are living in Nora’s world. 

Tóibín is rightly celebrated for his mastery of style and form. And if this is a book about grief then his prose is carefully crafted to mirror and complement his subject matter – just like the music Nora plays to shore up her sadness. But this, for me, is where the novel begins to falter. The slow-moving narrative plods through every sad step on Nora’s journey, the sentences settling us into the gentle rhythm of life for a middle-aged widow in late Sixties Ireland. And although this is effective and often very moving, it can get a little wearing.

Of course, it’s Nora’s depression that dulls her capacity to feel emotion, stripping her of any desire, or even capability, to truly engage with the world. “It was as though she lived under water,” we’re told, “and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air.” She can’t help thinking of everything that happens to her as daft and inconsequential, often laughably unimportant when experienced alongside the trauma of her husband’s long-term illness and death, which is still very much alive in her head. But she gradually notices her capacity to feel returning when, for example, her younger son is unjustly treated by one of his teachers and she’s surprised by the force of her anger. Likewise, we’re treated to glimpses into the passion she felt for her husband, such as when she recalls her hatred of the doctor who refused him pain relief. For me, the novel would have benefitted from more flashbacks like this.

By the end of the book Nora’s beginning to emerge from the grief that’s engulfed her but there’s no sense that her journey towards happiness should be remotely uplifting for us. I’m sure this won’t worry Tóibín as, on its own terms, Nora Webster is a very successful novel. Perhaps, after the popular success of Brooklyn, this will only strengthen his reputation as a writer of integrity. I only hope his next novel has a little more to offer the reader.

Matt Cain is the former Culture Editor of Channel 4 News. His debut novel, ‘Shot Through the Heart’, is published by Pan Macmillan