Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

Staff Review by Chris Hubbard

Colm Toibin's latest novel, Nora Webster, tells of a woman's grief and stress at having to re-enter the world of work and society after losing her husband.

Set in late 1960’s Ireland, Nora Webster is the story of a woman coming to  terms with the death of her husband, Maurice Webster, a teacher in their small village. Nora took comfort in the fact that she could rely on him - a highly regarded pillar of the community - to negotiate the difficulties of social life, while she was content to stay at home and look after her four children.

After his death, Nora finds herself having to deal with well meaning but sometimes unwanted visits from friends and family, offering advice and assistance. The realisation that she has to get her life back on track sees Nora returning to work in an office she was happy to leave upon marriage. There is a sad humility in the scenes where Nora has to prove herself a competent employee to people she thought she would never have to meet again.  It is a work environment where petty office politics and gossip are the order of the day.

Colm Toibin is a master of subtlety and the quiet moment. So much of the emotional punch of Nora Webster is to be found in the very things left unsaid by characters unable to articulate their real thoughts and feelings. It is quite obvious that the stammer developed by one of Nora’s sons is a manifestation of pent up emotional stress. Nora’s emergence from her grief corresponds with her newfound assertiveness, which is often misunderstood for rudeness.

There is a point in the novel when Nora discovers the joy and wonder of classical music via the record collection of some new friends. This is a turning point in her life and proof of the restorative power that music can have.  Nora begins to take singing lessons, realising full well that her best days as a vocalist are behind her, but now understanding how she can draw on her love of music to maybe ease her grief and suffering.

Nora Webster is such an honest and truthful novel where the very ordinariness of people’s lives makes for the most remarkable reading. There is a wonderful scene where Nora is persuaded by an overbearing hairdresser to change her hair colour to add some spark to her life but the end result just causes more anxiety.  Perhaps the highest praise I can give this novel is that should Nora Webster ever go out of print it could re-emerge as a Persephone Classic – a publisher that champions books about women and the little battles they win in the midst of family and community life.

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin. Published by Picador.  ISBN: 9781743533284  RRP: $19.99

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