A review by Susan Maciver
A locked wooden box is found at the back of the wardrobe containing a dead man’s clothes. His widow has the box forced open and inside are, as she knew they would be, letters to her from her late husband in their courtship days. She burns the letters and the box and the novel ends. Some have thought this an abrupt and unsatisfying ending to a novel about grief and finding another way of being. I think it is a stroke of brilliance: it marks the end of this first and most significant stage of her mourning. The transformation of wood and paper to smoke that goes up the chimney and joins the air is a fitting symbol of being at last fully able to let something go, a marriage, a happy one.
At the start of the novel, Nora Webster, widowed in her forties, is struggling to keep neighbours and citizens of Enniscorthy at bay so that she can find space and time for her mourning not just for her husband who died too young but her whole way of life as an at home mother in 1961 rural Ireland.Reticent in speech and behaviour, her inner life is rich, and she is extremely sensitive and thoughtful. These reflective processes are conveyed with consummate ease by Colm Toibin. It was no surprise to discover that the novel was in part a homage to his mother who died a few years before it was written. It seems clear that he is Donal, the third child, afflicted with a stammer since his father’s death, a lonely boy who hides behind and gains solace from his camera.
In the early chapters Nora’s reference point is her dead husband, Maurice, but as the book develops we see and hear more of her and at times hold our breath as she struggles to regain the younger self she was, but of course a self altered and tempered by cares, predominantly worries about her children: she thinks about them constantly and insightfully but cannot always communicate with them. This is not just her natural reserve but an anxiety about being intrusive, all too understandable as it is often hard for her to hold her own when faced with the intrusiveness of family, neighbours, and the church.
With the passage of time we see her regain and develop her love of classical music and her sense that she could have had another life, as a professional singer, if her circumstances had been different. Music speaks to her private, intimate self and she allows it into her life, after an internal struggle between her needs and what other people might think.This new life unfolds and includes her allowing herself to redecorate some rooms in her house to make them reflect who she is now.
But the past must be faced in its intensity once more. While painting a ceiling she injures her chest badly and is put on very strong painkillers by the doctor. She cannot sleep and becomes quasi psychotic. In this state she has a vision of Maurice in their bedroom and can talk to him. She also relives her mother’s last days and the vigil she kept after she died. Her self reliance desserts her and she can let herself be cared for by her Aunt Josie and to some extent by her sisters with whom she has an ambivalent relationship. These dark and frightening experiences are clearly key elements in her becoming able to move on.
Toibin’s prose is simple and crystal clear with an evocative resonance that makes visualising the town and the people in it quite easy.He also has a deep and subtle understanding of emotional states and conveys them with such compassion. In the midst of the huge pain the novel contains, it was also a book that made me laugh at the way fun is poked at the petty pomposities and self-delusions of some of the characters, the towns folk in particular.
I read it twice, a second time because I had forgotten I had read it. I realised almost at once but wanted to read on. I am so glad I did as I only realised on the second reading why “Nora Webster” had such a resonance for me. My father died in 1961, the same year as Maurice, the fictional husband and the 11 year old me watched my mother’s life a she had known it, and therefore mine, unalterably change as she struggled with what widowhood was meant to be in a small Scottish town. I am eternally grateful that she rebelled.