Irish Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Colm Tóibín returns to the Wexford of his youth for his latest novel, Nora Webster, a tale of a widow in 1970’s Ireland reinventing herself.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster (US paperback cover)

I was a bit concerned when pre-publication interviews with Tóibín suggested a slightly depressing tale of emotional distance and maternal absence, but the actual experience of reading Nora Webster is completely different; it’s an uplifting and profoundly inspirational novel.

The novel opens with the death of Nora Webster’s husband, Maurice, a longtime schoolteacher in Wexford. Nora’s first action is to quietly sell off the small seaside cottage the family have used for holidays. Nora keeps the transaction obsessively private, wanting nobody to know what she’s contemplating until it’s done. This is classic small-town Ireland, obsessed with the opinions and judgements of others, and interpreting the small victories as instances where some personal privacy is maintained. However, rather than writing a stereotypical novel of provincial stagnation and fearful conformity, Tóibín has written a novel about great courage and personal resilience, as Nora deliberately carves out a new life for herself rather than living solely for her children’s material survival.

Nora goes back to the office she worked in before marriage. This is not a case of a stay-at-home mother having to face a lowered station in life as a result of financial pressures:   at this time, married women typically had no choice other than to give up their job upon marriage. Known as the “marriage bar,” by law female public sector workers had to give up their jobs after marriage until 1973. Private sector workers were policed by a much stricter law, that of convention; to do anything other than stay at home after marriage was considered shocking. (As an example of this social pressure: my mother, a nurse, was able to remain working after marriage thanks to changes to the laws. However, many of the older nurses expressed pity for her, implying that her husband could not support her.)  Blanket protection against this discrimination was finally written into Irish law in 1977, although the social taboo lasted longer. So, you can understand why this is a move that makes Nora very uncomfortable. To make matters worst, a girlhood rival is now the tyrannical office manager.

The factory owner, and particularly his wife, feel some friendship for (or at least responsibility towards) Nora from her early days in the office. However, they being Protestant and Nora Catholic, that friendship could not be expressed by conventional means such as socializing together — especially as her late husband moved in republican political circles — the fabric of 1960s’ Ireland, though starting to change, was too rigid for that.

Once back at work, Nora finds she occupies a curious no-man’s-land: her old friendships were severed by her leaving after marriage, yet some of those same women still work there; her relationship with the owners from the old days keeps her at a remove from the rest of the office staff; but, her ties to the community — especially as she’s the widow of a revered schoolteacher — prevent her being an uncritical supporter of the owners either.

Nora Webster (UK/IRL cover)

As usual, the UK/IRL cover for Nora Webster is a little more evocative of the novel itself.

On entering the office, Nora begins sharing an office with the owner’s daughter, Elizabeth, who’s both younger and more outspoken than Nora. Both class and age make Elizabeth expect a good deal more from life than Nora; she expects pleasure and control over her own decisions. Elizabeth’s colorful social life is just one of many things that begin to expand Nora’s horizons as she finds her new place in the world.

There are few avenues of rebellion open to Nora, so her outlet becomes music. She joins a local musical society, begins taking singing lessons, and auditions disastrously for a choir. She redecorates the back room of her house, buying a record player, and takes trips to far-away Dublin to purchase records, all the while convinced that her sisters will consider the whole enterprise an extravagance, or worse a selfish indulgence. But, she’s delighted with each small victory, each space for herself carved out of conformity and obligation.

This dawning appreciation for music mirrors her son Donal’s growing obsession with photography (from what I understand, the book is based loosely on Tóibín’s own family history, and so I assume the artistic Donal is a representation of Tóibín himself). Her growing emotional and intellectual life gives Nora some appreciation for her son’s developing artistic temperament, and help her make the difficult decision to send him away to boarding school, where (she hopes) he’ll have more opportunities and enlarged horizons, despite it being a very difficult transition. (Donal’s reaction to boarding school mirrors my own a little over a decade later.) The scenes of Donal’s unhappiness and Nora’s struggle with the initial impulse to take him home were very subtly done.

Towards the end of the book — which takes Nora and her family through the difficult first couple of years after her husband’s death — Nora has an emotional crisis, the crux of which lies in a vision she has of being visited by her dead husband. The moment reflects the novel in miniature: Nora coming to terms with her new life, and accepting that she has the power to forge that life herself.  While there are literary antecedents for such a moment to be found in Joyce, I couldn’t help but notice that Nora’s final acts seem to be informed by the principles of Feng Shui. 

Feng Shui isn’t simply the optimum arrangement of furniture to promote well-being (although rearranging and painting her room is something Nora spends quite some time working on) it’s also about removing things from your life that are holding you back: old beliefs, old possessions, old habits. When Nora makes peace with herself, she also takes steps to remove the last vestiges of her old life from the house, thus freeing herself from their power and finally embracing her new independence. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, and Tóibín was not thinking of Feng Shui when he wrote the book, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarity.

The story of a widow’s reinvention of herself is one that Tóibín has previously explored in his excellent short story “The Name of the Game” — from his collection Mothers and Sons. It’s interesting to compare the two stories, because although the transformation from “stay-at-home” mother to breadwinner is the same in each, the major obstacles faced are subtly different. Nancy in “The Name of the Game” has to face down hostile banks and narrow-minded public officials, more than disapproving neighbors. The most-difficult obstacles Nora must overcome are ultimately her own expectations, which is why the final battle is one Nora must fight in her own mind.

I greatly enjoyed Nora Webster, and consider it among Colm Tóibín’s best novels. Tóibín is exceptional at taking the reader through difficult situations and depicting the inner life of complex characters, and Nora Webster satisfies on all levels.




If you enjoy Colm Tóibín’s fiction, you might be interested in:

My review of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary

My review of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn


Other recommended recent Irish fiction includes:

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

Deadly Intent by Anna Sweeney (review…)

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon (review…)

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (review…)

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