Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin is a stealthy writer. He offers up details of the lives of his characters without comment or judgment, pulling the reader along until they find themselves deeply invested in the fate of the people on the page. In his novel Nora Webster, he presents the everyday life of a young Irish widow over the course of three years, as she raises her family and finds a job after years away from the workforce. The reader is privy to her fears and insecurities as she attempts to find her place in a world that is utterly changed by the absence of her husband.
As the book opens Nora is beset by visitors offering their condolences, when a neighbor advises her to not answer the door.
She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer
him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he never would have
tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
Sunday mass was the worst. No matter where she sat in the cathedral, people looked at her with special sympathy, or moved to make space for her, or waited for her outside to talk.
Writing female characters is a particular strength of Toibin’s. Throughout the book, he shows readers how Nora navigates the social and political world of her small town. He brings us with Nora as she gets a new hairdo and buys new clothes, as she deals with a difficult woman at the office and as she steps out to the pub. The book is set against the turbulent political background of early 1970s Ireland. Nora is thrust into a more prominent position in her community as she decides to join a union. He daughter is involved in political protests in Dublin.
The reader is also with Nora as she awakens to the damage the trauma of their father’s illness has had on her two young sons. Slowly she begins to take agency over her life, guiding her children and pursuing her love of music. There is no dramatic, triumphant ending. The book is full of small moments, the kind we all experience in life, the kind we come to treasure as we lose those we love.
Ellen Birkett Morris’s interviews and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Louisville Courier Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.com. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Santa Fe Literary Review. She recently won the Bevel Summers Prize for her short story, May Apples.