From The Outside Looking In……. Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

………….I read a phrase in a book once which went something like

“From the outside looking in, it’s hard to understand……..from the inside looking out it’s hard to explain”

The dual challenge understanding from the outside and at the same time showing what it’s like from the inside looking out is taken on and mastered by Colm Toibin’s new novel ‘Nora Webster’, as it takes us into the head and heart of a widow looking out at her family, her life and her world. Not since my youthful days of falling for and wanting to protect Tess of D’Urbervilles have I found myself falling a little for a book character in the way I feel for Nora Webster!!

Nora Webster is in her mid forties and is living in Enniscorthy in County Wexford in Ireland. It’s the late 1960’s and Ireland is on the cusp of the political change and strife which will shape it for years to come. But Nora’s change is a much more deeply personal one – recently widowed she has to come to terms with her grief, the growing up of her two young sons, Donal and Connor, and her two older daughters, the expectations of her neighbours and her extended family about “the widow’s role”, the need to earn money to keep her and her children, and the constant memories of her husband Maurice, who’s died at fairly young age of TB.

In terms of a plot there’s not much to it in a sense – the most exciting, edgy things which happen in it are Nora joining the union and her giving a “piece of her mind’ to the woman who terrorises the female office staff in the place where Nora works. But there’s no big bang plot here. The growing problems in Northern Ireland are there as part of the story – but they are in the background, on TV, in the conversations, or in her daughters emerging political and social views. But they are not central to the story which is instead very much focused on the minutiae of Nora’s life and her thoughts – she gets her hair dyed…….she joins a choir……..she goes into Dublin to shop. But it works because it’s beautifully written and it’s kept realistic and simple.

 

Colm Toibin

He writes much much better than me.......

…… but my desk is much tidier than his!

But that doesn’t mean it meanders. Nora is struggling to come to terms with Maurice’s death, fighting for control of her reactions and other people’s reactions to her as ‘newly widowed’. She’s having to juggle that effort to keep going with trying to manage the impact on her family, especially on her two young sons, one of whom has begun to wet the bed and the other has developed a stammer. And yet, even in these struggles, there is a gentle, almost lilting, dreamy quality to the writing that makes you want to cheer every step forward Nora makes, forgive every mistake she makes. She’s a character who brought out the alpha-male in me – she’s like a mid-twentieth century Tess of the D’Urbervilles!

It’s a novel which I found captivating, because the characters seem to be so real and alive. It’s also a novel that will no doubt resonate for many readers because it’s so sharply observed I think anyone would find references to their own childhood, family or home. I loved the speech patterns and rhythms in the dialogue, for it reminded me of my Gran….I grew up in a world awash with phrases like those in the book – full of “Och, now Nora!” and “Well!!!!! You should see that Peggy Gibney!”. It also perfectly captures the feel of community, good and bad, in a place like Enniscorthy – it’s rich in memories, a place where everyone knows (or at least thinks they know) everybody else and their business, and it’s a place where everybody has opinions about everything!

Fiona Shaw

At the same time as reading Nora Webster I also listened to it on audiobook...

…… produced by Penguin and magnificently narrated by the actress Fiona Shaw. She’s clearly a talented actress – and if this picture is anything to go by she’d make a great cloakroom attendant as well!

I’ve read a few of Colm Toibin’s novels and always enjoyed them. In some ways Nora Webster reminded me of Eilis Lacey in his novel Brooklyn in the way that both women have an underlying steel about them which belies the perceptions others have of them. There was also the obvious connections with his last novel ‘The Testament of Mary’ (which I LOVED!) not just in the fact that both characters were coming to terms with grief but also in the fact that they were having to adjust as much to the feelings of others as to themselves. And while I’m hardly qualified to make the judgement, he seems to me to be brilliant at capturing the heart and mind of a woman and I haven’t read any male author do it better than he does with Nora Webster.

In an age when much of our popular culture seems obsessed with histrionics and exaggerated expressions of emotion, this is a book that makes you realise there is every bit as much, if not more real drama, in everyday life itself. Nora Webster is a beautifully written, but nevertheless very ordinary story, about a very ordinary woman – and that’s what makes it, and her, so extraordinary.

Book Rating - 10

“Nora Webster” by Colm Toibin was published by Viking. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.

Colm Toibin is of course a literary heavyweight these days so there are reviews in the press in abundance. However if you are interested in reading a bit more about the book, I’d recommend a few blogs instead of the broadsheets. There are again a lot of blog reviews of the book to choose from but I’d recommend those at Hair Past A Freckle (surely one of the best blog names ever!), Plastic Rosaries, and at Lady Fancifull

The novel had been some years in the writing, in some ways reflecting Toibin’s own mother’s life after the death of his father. Here he is being interviewed about the background to the novel in a video at The Guardian