Does ‘Nora Webster’ succeed for Colm Tóibín?

Nora Webster book coverNora Webster (London: Penguin, 2015) has been highly praised and shortlisted for literary prizes. Colm Tóibín is a highly regarded Irish novelist whose other work, The Master held me in thrall, moving with all the subtle slowness of Henry James, the master of the title. At the end of reading Nora Webster I am, I confess, disappointed.

There is clearly a powerful human story in observing that period of a woman’s life after she has been widowed much too soon. Nora’s daughters are in their late teens and have more or less flown the nest but her two sons, Donal with the stammer that has developed after his father’s death and Conor, observant and intelligent beyond his years, are not yet out of primary school. Nora has to contend with all the problems and without sufficient means. This is the account, closely observed, of how she battles to recover her own individual identity, not just Mrs Webster, Maurice’s wife, but a woman with her own feelings and an inner determination to overcome her loss and to live again.

She has to cope with returning to work in the office she left to get married and where now her embittered school friend, nicknamed ‘The Sacred Heart’, rules the roost by keeping as much as possible secret and by terrorising her staff. Her boys were clearly traumatised by being left with their great-aunt while their father was in hospital dying, and are wary now of being excluded again. Their problems run through the story.

Tóibín recounts Nora’s story which is played out in the late 1960s against the civil rights troubles in the north and the deeply conventional Catholicism of the south. Tóibín’s every turn of phrase captures the very Irishness of the story acutely and reminds the reader of the often neglected southern Irish perspective. In that regard, the book is excellent. Nora’s battles and her several victories have the reader backing her all the way. Her rediscovery of music and singing as both therapies for her soul and a new focus for her single life run like two continuous threads through the story.   And yet …

I found the various dramas at work, at home and in her social life were too fragmentary and they did not engage my enthusiasm as I had hoped and expected. However, I am resolved to read at least one more Tóibín novel to see whether this one is just an exception and the enjoyment I had from The Master is repeated in his other work.

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