Wednesday, October 14, 2015

NORA WEBSTER by Colm Toibin

Given the subject matter, one would expect this novel to be poignant and heart-wrenching.  However, it is anything but.  Nora is a 40-something woman in Ireland in the late 1960s.  She has four children and has just lost her husband.  The novel opens with her fuming about the endless stream of well-wishing visitors who appear at her door unannounced to commiserate.  Nora remains an obscure and distant personality throughout the novel, but we gain minute glimpses from time to time of what sort of woman she is.  Her relationship with her children is almost as arms-length as the reader’s relationship to the character.  A wealthy family offers her a job in the office where she excelled before she married Maurice, and, with no means of support except a meagre widow’s pension, she has no option except to accept, leaving her young boys to fend for themselves after school.  Her older son has developed a stammer since his father’s death, but especially after spending two months with Nora’s aunt while Nora attended to her ailing husband.  Nora also has two daughters, both away at school, so that their assistance is sporadic.  Nora’s practical nature emerges with every new decision, until the workers at her place of employment decide to form a labor union.  Risking her reputation and relationship with her employer, she dives in.  To me, this episode coincides with Nora’s realization that she no longer has to consider her husband’s opinion or ask for his permission.  That is not to say that her husband was oppressive; in fact, his good standing in the community is a blessing in many ways, gaining her neighbors’ sympathy and support as Nora threads her way through a life without him.  Prior to the unionization effort, Nora has sold her family’s vacation home, but this decision seemed to me almost sentimental, in that she does not want to go there again and relive the memories with her husband that the house will revive.  Little by little, Nora expands her boundaries and allows her love of music—one passion that Maurice did not share—to resurface.  This novel is quintessentially subtle and understated in every way—in the manner in which Nora grieves and then the manner in which she reawakens.

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