Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?
Shortlisted for the Costa best novel award as well as the Folio prize, Nora Webster is the latest novel from bestselling author Colm Toibin. This book explores the grief and despair experienced in the wake of great personal tragedy. Our title character, Nora Webster, is a middle aged widow mourning the loss of her husband Maurice whilst trying to continue raising her four children.
The story begins not long after the death of Nora’s husband, yet long enough that well meaning visitors are becoming more of a burden than a comfort. For those of you who have previously read Brooklyn, one such visitor will already be familiar to you; Eilis’ mother May Lacey. Colm Toibin quickly hints at what may have become of some characters from the previous novel during May’s conversation with Nora before moving on with the tale of Nora Webster. This is not a sequel in the sense that you need to have read Brooklyn first but I found the nod to his previous work a nice touch. I enjoyed him talking of the other characters years removed from Eilis’ original tale and was grateful that he didn’t go too much into detail, still allowing the reader to imagine what might have become of Eilis and co.
As with Brooklyn previously, I again found myself coming to care for the characters in this story very quickly. Within a very short space of time you are embroiled in Nora’s grief, mourning right beside her as she tries to come to terms with the monumental changes happening in her life. Nora is a woman who has lived for many years as a wife and mother with no real identity beyond these roles. This is the story of her trying to find her way in life as an individual, torn from the comfortable familiarity of being one half of a couple. This isn’t the story of a widow trying to find love again. This is the story of a widow trying to find herself. Everything has changed for Nora including her children who she is struggling to deal with alongside her grief.
In the early stages of this book I found it fairly heavy going. Due to the subject matter it begins as melancholy as you would imagine. The line in the extract above about living underwater and giving up on the struggle to swim towards air is a fairly accurate representation of how I felt reading the beginning of this book. It is all of the small things that you may not even have considered with somebody being widowed that begin to add up to a considerable weight that Nora is having carry with her. For a long time it feels like you are sinking along with Nora as she struggles to keep going.
However, slowly but surely, small things begin to change Nora’s life and you begin to believe that she may one day be happy again. The story spans a roughly 3 year period and takes it’s time, not rushing through the grieving period to a sunny day years down the line. This isn’t that type of book. Expect a slow but steady pace as you follow Nora’s story of rediscovery. Whilst there is no huge turning points or massive surprises this book will leave you with one main feeling, hope.
I took my time with this one, allowing myself to slowly enjoy Colm Toibin’s wonderful characters over the course of a week. I felt fully immersed in their world and enjoyed sharing in their lives. Colm Toibin has become a must read author for me and if you enjoy slower explorations of character then I definitely recommend giving him a go. As with Brooklyn, I would have to rate this as 5 out of 5. Quiet and unassuming, this is another brilliantly subtle novel from Colm Toibin.
I see so many people criticising books like this for not having any major turning points or any exciting action. These negative reviews confuse me. I’m often unsure why people believe these elements should be in these types of novel. This is a storied exploration of a widow grieving and trying to raise her children as best she can. The action is in the tender moments as Nora begins to allow herself to live again in the smallest ways. Her rebellious streak extends as far as purchasing records, a car chase or a gun fight would be most out of place! If you don’t begin with these absurd expectations then I am sure you will be sucked in to the world Toibin has created and you will enjoy every second of it.
Sometimes you can find joy in the smallest things.