21 October 2014

A Different Take on the Irish Woman: Nora Webster

Colm Toibin

I rarely read reviews of new books before I pen my own, but I had to check out what the great Jennifer Egan had to say last weekend in the New York Times on the great Colm Toibin’s NORA WEBSTER. She got it right. 
The only thing she understated is that Colm Toibin deploys the same literary technique most every time in that he tenderly weaves a spell about his characters to slowly, gently draw the reader in. 
Not so much happens, so it seems, until you realize that a whole lot has happened in such a nuanced fashion that the sum is exponentially greater than the sum of the parts.
Such is the case with NORA WEBSTER, even more so than any other of his fictions, my personal favorite being THE MASTER, a fictional telling of the early life of Henry James.
Nora is a young Irish woman whose husband has suddenly passed away, leaving her with four children, few assets and no sense of direction. Not a new tale, not even revelationary, rather a mesmerizing introspective journey about a woman who learns that aloneness is also freedom. Of a sorts. After all, we are in the early 1970’s, just as the modern feminist movement is brewing in the industrialized countries, and we are in Ireland, a patriarchal culture. Toibin draws the connection between the personal and political through Nora’s two daughters, who have left home to study and to work while she tends to her two young sons, who have difficulty fathoming much less articulating their grief.
It is also clear that Maurice, her late husband, was the life of the party, and Nora happily settled in his shadow, and only as she forges ahead does she discover latent talents that bring out her personality and her independent streak. We see this almost from the start when the first decision she makes is to rid herself of a summer home to shore up finances, and to distance herself from her past, with no concern for the affect on her children. She would prefer a form of  anonymity in order to begin again.
“Nora found herself wondering if there was somewhere she could go, if there was a town, or a part of Dublin with a house like this one, a modest semi-detached house on a road lined with trees, where no one could visit them and they could be alone there, all three of them. And then she found her mind moving towards the next thought - that the possibility of such a place, such a house, would include the idea that what had happened could be erased, that the burden that was on her now could be lifted, that the past could be restored and could make its way effortlessly into a painless present.”
Toibin’s affection for his title character is clear from the onset, and his insights into her inner life profound. Her thoughts are revealed only to the reader, as Nora keeps much to herself, and her actions often belie her true feelings. In effect, she is searching for her center, if such words had been part of her lexicon; instead, she meanders through grief in fits and starts, discovering herself gingerly, as we do.
If you like smart slow character studies, with crystal clear and elegant prose, you will want to curl up with NORA WEBSTER. Available in hardcover and for all e-readers.