Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster

We all of us construct nightmare futures for ourselves, built of the fears that keep us up at night, and though these are no doubt highly personal, illustrative of who we are as individuals, surely one of the most common fears must be that time will pass without bringing anything new or exciting into our lives, that the mundanity of our days will stretch into uneventful years and dreary decades. The heroine of Colm Tóibín’s eighth novel, the eponymous Nora Webster, finds herself in such a situation after the early death of her husband, Maurice. Widowed, with four children, no savings and a meagre pension, Nora must return to work at the office of a local flour mill, the very same job she had done decades previously, under the same management, with the same unpleasant coworkers. Worse, the death of her husband has exposed a vulnerability in Nora: she does not have an identity outside of wife and homemaker, and so her grief over the death of her husband threatens to consume her.

The novel takes on larger dimensions thanks to its setting: Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where two political struggles – one local, the other international – will transform the very fabric of Irish society. The local conflict, which would consume Irish politics for much of the final decades of the millennium, centred on Catholic/Protestant tensions, heightened by competing visions for the future of Northern Ireland: Irish Catholics wanted a united, independent Ireland, whereas the Irish Protestants were content remaining within the greater United Kingdom. The second political struggle, far less bloody but perhaps more consequential, was for an expansion of the role of women across Western society. Neither of these political issues takes on an important role within the plot, but they exist in the periphery in a way that enhances our appreciation for Nora’s predicament. Maurice, her former husband, could very easily have been a domineering, cruel man, prone to violence, and his death an unqualified liberation for Nora – but that is not the case. On the contrary, he is depicted as having been kind and personable, devoted to Nora and far better liked, in the wider community and even among Nora’s own family, than Nora herself. Nora is even so distraught by her husband’s death that she is blinded to the sufferings of her children, particularly her two young boys, who were left in the company of Nora’s Aunt Josie during their father’s final, agonizing days. When Nora finally collects them, the boys have changed: Conor wets the bed, and Donal stammers. In a pivotal scene, Nora confronts Josie to discover what happened to them during her absence, and Tóibín demonstrates his absolute mastery of dialogue:

“What happened to them here?” Nora asked.
Josie put a lump of sugar in her tea and then some milk. She took a sip and put the cup down on the trolley.
“I suppose they noticed the silence,” Josie said.
“The silence? Is that all?”
“Yes. They’re from the town. And maybe I should have arranged for them to play with some of the local boys, but they didn’t want that. So they stayed here. And it was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or pulled in on the road, the two of them would stop what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time and never once coming to see them.”
“Maurice was dying.”
“Conor wet the bed most nights. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time,” Josie repeated.
“I had no choice.”
“There we are then. Did you think they would come home unchanged?”
“I don’t know what I thought. I wanted to come and ask you.”
“Well, you’ve asked me, Nora.”
They both remained silent for some moments. A few times Nora began to say something but then stopped.
“I was looking after Maurice,” she finally said.

In restrained, almost minimalist dialogue, Tóibín is proving himself an absolute master of human psychology, worthy heir to his idol, Henry James. The crux of the conversation can be simply stated: Nora realizes, belatedly, that her children have suffered, and cannot conceive that she bears some blame for their pain; Josie, her aunt, believes that Nora has been neglectful, but does not wish to say so directly out of fear of wounding someone already in pain from the loss of a loved one. “I suppose they noticed the silence,” Josie tells Nora, who opts to continue deluding herself about her role in her children’s suffering and takes “silence” literally: perhaps, being raised in the town, the quiet of the countryside disturbed them. But that is not the “silence” Josie refers to; rather, it is Nora’s absence, the absence of the one person most capable of providing emotional comfort to the children of a dying father. And the final stroke of genius: when the accusation has been levelled, when Nora comes to realize Josie’s true opinion, we once more get a silence, one that is literal, certainly, but also deeply symbolic of the gulf separating them in this instant. Tóibín reputedly spent 13 years writing Nora Webster, and I would not be the least bit surprised if this little scene – all of two pages, in its entirety – took up a year of that time; it is that perfectly constructed.

By now it should be clear that the dramas of Nora’s life are minor ones. Faced with a suffering family and bleak employment prospects, as well as the loss of the most meaningful relationship in her life, Nora must construct new meaning for herself, find some new purchase on life, and this she does, gradually, heroically. Here, at the close of the first chapter, are Nora’s thoughts as she lies alone in the bed she once shared with her husband: “She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.” She begins by selling their summer home, a place of great sentimental value to her and to her children, but a place haunted with the memories of her late husband. From this necessary renunciation, this casting off of the old, she undertakes a series of minor changes: she dyes her hair – a bold move in a small, conservative Irish town – and purchases new clothes, for example, spending far more money on these new fashion items than her husband would have thought prudent. Through the interventions of a friend, she is encouraged to take vocal lessons, and the boldness required for this undertaking galvanizes her in other areas of her life. Very early in the novel, for example, after visiting her aunt’s enviably cozy home, Nora’s mind wanders to the possibility of such a place for herself: “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.”

Encouraged by this thought, she sets about remodelling parts of her home, determined to paint her entire living room by herself. She purchases the paint and begins the task, only to end up with severe muscle spasms, necessitating painkillers and prolonged bedrest. Nora is only human, after all, but it isn’t her capability that makes her heroic; it’s her willingness to confront her troubles head on, and construct from them an identity and a purpose, that makes her character so resonant. And Tóibín’s masterful evocation of this woman and her battle marks him, unquestionably, as one of our greatest living novelists.