Monday, September 24, 2018

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

If you have not yet read Colm Toibin, you are in for a treat. Not long ago, I reviewed his magnificent novel, Brooklyn, and today I want to talk to you about another stunning novel, Nora Webster. This is a novel that closely describes the inner mind of a woman, Nora, who, widowed in her late forties, is sole responsible for her home and her four children, only two of whom still live at home.

In my experience as a reader, I rarely find male authors who create believable women characters. Toibin goes much further; he describes in great detail and in first person narrative the stream of consciousness of a woman struggling to recreate herself as an independent woman. Nora is an intensely private person, but given the small Irish town in which she lives, it is difficult to maintain even a modicum of privacy since everyone wants and expects to know other’s business.
“You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbor, stood at her front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
Nora replies that they mean well. 
“Night after night,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”
She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
And her neighbor is not the only person who speaks to her in this new way. She finds she must return to a job she never liked, and work for a man who seems to assume this paternal tone is quite justified. 
Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or to tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.
And further:
In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
And what a fine job of it she does. She takes her family, including the two older girls who are out of the family home, on an inexpensive caravan holiday, and slowly her children come to see the inner strength Nora has, and that they can rely on her. Of course, the process is slow and often so lonely and painful, but she begins to find the joyful person she once was as she goes through the motions of working and dealing with others. The hardest part is knowing what to say to friends, how to socialize, when in the past she had left most of that to Maurice, her much more talkative and social husband. 
At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about a her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But here were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up 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. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what had happened?
The profundity of this novel is not due to some sudden existential moment, some cosmic insight. Instead it is in the detailed description of how Nora copes and how she literally creates herself. After years of not being musical, she returns to singing, and that is an important step for her in becoming. She finds a singing teacher who urges her to sing in a choir. The teacher, Laurie, comments:
“You know I sang for Nadia Boulanager,” Laurie continued, “and one thing she said was that singing is not something you do, it is something you live. Wasn’t that wise?”
And while Nora does not know how to respond to this at the time, she does come to live her singing, and that along with the growing strength she feels in helping her children and making a home for them allow her to emerge as a self-made person.

I will not provide more of the meticulous description Toibin uses to describe this coming to fruition of a strong and independent woman, but I hope you will pick up the novel yourself and marvel at both Nora and Toibin. The novel is a rather long one, and there is little dramatic action or crescendo, but I found the book lovely and deeply insightful. I recommend it to you along with his other finely crafted books.

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