I’ve always found Colm Toibin’s writing mesmerizing even though his stories seldom involve high drama. “The Story of the Night” is a novel packed with suppressed emotion about a young man in Argentina who ingratiates himself with a politically-motivated conservative family while hiding his homosexuality - it’s always struck me as strange that no one ever noted the plot resemblance this novel bears to Alan Hollinghurst’s later-published Booker-winning “The Line of Beauty.” Toibin’s novel “The Master” about Henry James’ inner life is a quiet masterpiece. You’d assume his slender book “The Testament of Mary” would be full of biblical action, but it mostly involves the embittered reclusive Mary grumbling about her son and the way his disciples try to put words in her mouth and hound her. As I discussed at the time when I read it here, I didn’t find this last novel as impactful as Toibin’s other books that I’ve read. However, his novel “Brooklyn” left me reeling. This is another beautifully languorous story of a woman who emigrates from Ireland to NYC in the 1950s. Despite this, the crisis of choice that the protagonist Eilis encounters at the end is incredibly gripping. Now, in his new novel “Nora Roberts” which is a sort of sequel to “Brooklyn” – the two have little to link them except mention of Eilis at the beginning of this new novel - Toibin has employed a similar story-telling device but it has an even subtler effect.
“Nora Webster” is set in an Irish town in the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s described as “the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.” The titular protagonist Nora must readjust to an unexpected new future which is now unmapped and contend with the expectations of the community which both supports and inhibits her. She is a woman in mourning for her husband Maurice, annoyed by the ceaseless parade of good-meaning visitors offering their condolences and trying to adjust to her new identity as a widow. Rather than lingering in regret over what has been lost she has a cavalier attitude about marching into the future: “That was the past, then, she thought as she walked into the living room, and it cannot be rescued.” She is understandably worried about money having two boys at home to raise on her own and two elder daughters who live away but still require her support.
I always admire novels that deal frankly with the financial pressures people experience and how this filters into and informs their choices. Barely asked if she wants the job, Nora is given a position at an established local company she worked at prior to her marriage. The experience is chillingly described: “Returning to work in that office belonged to a dream of being caged.” The scenes of office politics are expertly written with Nora caught between a fearsome matriarchal office manager and the talkative work-shy daughter of the owners. She is subservient to neither and determinedly maintains her independence despite the risk of losing this much-needed source of income.
The novel includes many cleverly observed moments of the struggles of motherhood. Nora is sometimes struck by how she may have been guilty of emotional negligence towards her children – especially during the painful process when Maurice was dying. Yet she is determined not to have her identity inhibited by her role as a mother and is careful not to fall into the nagging attitude she experienced from her own mother. Regardless of what course of action she takes with her children she is aware that “No matter what she did now, she would be playing a role.” It’s a problem people experience frequently when wanting to help someone yet finding themselves defined by their position to them. Whatever stance Nora takes in regards to her troubled son, her identity is inextricably linked to being the mother.
Perhaps the most emotionally compelling aspect of the novel is the way Toibin describes Nora’s new profound sense of aloneness which accompanies the loss of her husband. Being suddenly cut off from him is tantamount to experiencing an existential crisis: “So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.” Yet, it is in this space where she’s unmoored from the obligations of being a wife that she’s able to pursue her own interests in singing and music. Here she tastes what her life could have been if she’d made different choices early on. Her music teacher Laurie describes how “We can all have plenty of lives, but there are limits. You never can tell what they are.” There are endless possibilities in this world and our identities are constantly evolving, but whatever choices we make will necessarily cut us off from following other possibilities. For those who have lost people they love, it’s a tragic and ever-present fact that they are now excluded from this range of potential experience. Nora solemnly observes that whatever decisions she now makes “He would be the one left out.”
“Nora Webster” is an elegiac hymn to everything we could be and everything we’re not. The novel moves at a leisurely pace, but its power accumulates over time as the dynamics of Nora’s character intensifies. I fell hard for this feisty individual who refuses to be defined by her circumstances. It provides an interesting contrast to the protagonist Eilis of Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” who forges a very different sort of independent path for herself. Amidst the political instability of the time and pressure from those around her, Nora remains an uncompromising fixture in her community. Intelligent, strong and soulful.