Nora Webster review – Colm Tóibín’s ‘powerful study of widowhood’

Personal grief plays out against a backdrop of political turmoil in Colm Tóibín’s love letter to an Ireland in flux

In Ireland, there is only one Nora – Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife and muse. From its title outwards, Colm Tóibín’s new novel is all about Ireland and, in a larger sense, about an important contemporary Irish writer’s relationship with Joyce, whose work still throws such a long shadow across every angle of Irish literary life.

Nora Webster, set in an Irish town in the late 1960s, with the Troubles beginning to rumble away like distant thunder beyond the horizon, is about a tough-minded Irish mother and a country morphing, so to speak, from Ulysses to Bloody Sunday. Explicitly, it is a powerful study of widowhood and grief, of a woman in her prime working out how she is going to live without “the love of her life”, her late husband, Maurice Webster, a schoolmaster.

Like Brooklyn, Tóibín’s great novel of an Irishwoman’s exile, Nora Webster is animated by a death in the family. But where Eilis Lacey becomes reaffirmed by her loss, Nora Webster, who is also a strong and intelligent woman, must find a new strength through a more painful, private colloquy with herself. Death, Tóibín seems to be saying, is a bigger bereavement than exile.

When Tóibín published Brooklyn, in 2009, he said: “John McGahern taught me that it’s OK to write repeatedly about the same things.” Nora Webster follows Brooklyn, drilling into the Ireland of the author’s memory and imagination, but with the difference that – apart from a package trip to Spain, where she notes “the strange, fetid smell” of abroad – Webster does not leave Ireland. She is, like her people, stuck in a world of priests, petty small-town rivalries and the kind of provincial boredom that is almost redeemed by the torments of frustration. Tóibín shows brilliantly how Nora, imprisoned in her grief and her widowhood, becomes maddened by the tyranny of neighbours’ condolences, and increasingly desperate to escape.

Unlike Eilis Lacey, Nora does not cross the Atlantic, she learns to sing. The discovery of music in her life gives her “a line towards brightness, or some beginning”, writes Tóibín, a master of less is more. At the same time, because he is also exploring Ireland at a crossroads, an infinitely fascinating web of allusion, taut with nuance and subtlety, and because no Irish writer returning to his or her homeland can ever quite step out of Joyce’s shadow, Nora Webster carries a burden of detail missing from Brooklyn. Put simply, Tóibín’s novel contains an awful lot of its author and his resonant sonority. This cuts both ways, good and bad.

Tóibín loves his country. Small-town Ireland, especially the remote south-east, where he grew up, is a place to which he often returns in his fiction. It’s a society he understands in his bones and, partly because he has often been exiled from it, one he returns to with relish. Like Joyce, he revels in the particularity of everyday life. When Webster returns to work at Gibneys, the big local employer and “owner of everything”, Tóibín extracts both drama and comedy from her experiences in the accounts department.

Next to Joyce, the other prose-poet of Irish life is the late John McGahern, whom Tóibín strives to emulate in what he has called “the attempt to find truth in the simplest detail”. In Brooklyn, this pared-down narrative strategy was triumphant. Here it is slightly less successful, partly because Tóibín lacks distance from his material, and also because the drumbeat of the Troubles is always in the background.

When we are told, en passant, about “Catholics marching for civil rights”, another character remarks: “That’s one scrap I wouldn’t like to be in. There will be no easy way out of that one.” But, as every historical novelist knows, lines loaded with history will always be at odds with the quest for “truth in the simplest detail”. Later, after another reference to “baton-charges”, we hear about the young Charles Haughey and his gun running. Then, towards the end, comes news of Bloody Sunday.

All this is so cleverly braided into the widowhood of Nora Webster and her two boys, Conor and the stuttering, damaged Donal, that Tóibín’s considerable narrative gifts successfully navigate the bumpy intersection of the private and the public. Through the slow personal reawakening of Webster, he finds a subtle way to reflect on Ireland’s need to put its own grief into a larger context.

Nora Webster is an Irish love story and a love letter to Irish readers from one of Ireland’s contemporary masters. But it skilfully transcends its source material in a way that will probably recommend it to a much wider audience. When, in the closing pages, Webster burns her late husband’s letters because “they belonged to a time that was over now”, Tóibín’s message is clear. The past is another country. Better to be an exile from regret. The only way for things to “work out”, a recurrent phrase, is to move forward, boats against the current.

Nora Webster is published by Viking (£18.99). Click here to buy it for £14.24 with free UK p&p


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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